Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Vibrant mixed-use centers key to growing smart in Tacoma

Transportation Choices Coalition and Futurewise Co-wrote an Op-Ed on Tacoma's Mixed Use Centers update that was printed in the News Tribune Today. It was printed straight across from the TNT's positive editorial on light rail opening from Seattle to Tukwilla.

The second reading and discussion on the Tacoma Mixed Use Centers plan will be at tonight's city council meeting at Tacoma City Hall at 5:00pm. The final reading and proposed passage of the package will be next week (the 21st) at 5:00pm at Tacoma City Hall. Stay tuned!

Here is today's editorial:

Vibrant mixed-use centers key to growing smart in the city

The Puget Sound Regional Council predicts that 1.7 million additional people will move into Pierce, Kitsap, King and Snohomish counties in the next 30 years. They expect Tacoma to grow by 32 percent – 127,000 people – by the year 2040, an increase larger than the current population of Bellevue.

Regional growth provides tremendous opportunities, but also real challenges. Are we going to grow in a way that concentrates new jobs and residents in urban centers, or are we going to pave our way to Mount Rainier? Will future growth spur economic development and revitalize our historic business districts or build new communities without sufficient infrastructure?

Will future residents of Pierce County have the choice to catch a streetcar to work or walk to the grocery store? Or will working families continue to live in auto-oriented communities and have to choose between putting food on the table or filling up the gas tank?

These are the tough questions we must ask as we envision what we want our region and communities to look like during our lifetimes and for future generations.

Elected officials and community leaders asked many of these questions as they developed the growth plan in “Vision 2040” at the Puget Sound Regional Council. They found that growth and quality of life can co-exist if we are smart about where we direct new homes and jobs.

Protecting our natural lands makes concentrating growth in cities a must. While growth within cities provides immense economic development opportunities, it will also create pressure on cities’ aging infrastructure. If the City of Tacoma grows by 127,000 people, we will need to fix sidewalks, paint crosswalks and bike lanes, and fill potholes. Sewer and utility systems will need upgrades, open space and parks will need improvements, and there will be more traffic and demand for more transit service.

Economic opportunities for cities absorbing new growth are immense. Such cities as Tacoma, Lakewood and Puyallup can attract new jobs; promote prospering business districts; and create vibrant, walkable communities as the region grows.

But capitalizing on this opportunity will not be easy. Cities must engage neighborhoods early so that new growth plans can respond to the needs of current as well as future residents.

The Tacoma City Council has a unique opportunity to do just that: plan for growth in a way that involves neighborhood input to create compact mixed-use neighborhoods well-connected by sidewalks, bike lanes, high-frequency bus service and streetcars. This month, the council will hear testimony and vote on the mixed-use centers plan as proposed by the Tacoma Planning Commission.

The proposed plan will change transportation requirements, raise height limits, and focus infrastructure resources in areas of the city such as 56th and South Tacoma Way, lower Portland Avenue, Martin Luther King Way and the Stadium District.

The current plan is an important step toward creating vibrant, livable neighborhoods, but the city should be bolder. The council should amend the proposal to:

• Remove parking minimums, and let the market decide how much parking is needed, not mandate excessive parking lots.

• Attract local businesses and provide housing for families – while protecting single-family neighborhoods – by allowing the height bonus to apply to the entire mixed-use zones surrounding core pedestrian streets.

• Make walking and cycling more convenient by implementing complete streets standards and shorter maximum block lengths for new streets.

Over the next 30 years, Tacoma and our region will grow. The question is whether we plan for growth and invest in infrastructure in a way that builds vibrant, connected, and livable communities. Tacoma has the opportunity to continue to lead the region in meeting its sustainability and economic development goals.

The City Council should step up to the plate, reaffirm its leadership and pass a strong mixed-use center update.

Andrew Austin of Tacoma is the policy associate for Transportation Choices Coalition, a statewide organization working to bring Washington residents more opportunities to ride a bus, catch a train, bike or walk. Sara Nikolic is co-director of Futurewise, a statewide nonprofit smart-growth advocacy organization.

Update: The Tacoma BIA blog covered the Mixed-Use Centers update today here.

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