Pac Ave Rising -- The Story of a Downtown Revival

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UW Tacoma's Pacific Avenue retail space will be completely full for the first time by the end of summer 2015.

Shoppers and visitors mingle with students and university staff on Tacoma's Pacific Avenue along the UW Tacoma campus.The gravitational pull of the south end of Tacoma’s downtown core is about to become much stronger. By the end of this summer and for the first time in UW Tacoma’s history, the three blocks of Pacific Avenue spanning the base of campus will be 100% occupied.

Four new businesses appealing to students and families alike are filling the last vacancies: Elemental Pizza, Cuterness, Satori, and London’s, each filling a niche and contributing to an ongoing downtown retail renaissance.

Elemental Pizza will serve wood-fired pizzas with an option of eating on a newly-constructed patio overlooking the serenely landscaped Prairie Line Trail. At Cuterness, you’ll find exclusive children’s clothing brands unavailable elsewhere in Tacoma, Seattle, or Portland. Satori, a skillfully-curated clothing boutique relocating from 6th Avenue, will expand its selections to include home goods and housewares. And London’s, a salon voted Best of South Sound two years in a row, will open its second location, this one geared towards students.

Tacoma's Pacific Avenue, lined with UW Tacoma buildings, with downtown skyline behind.Shift in Focus

The shift in focus from mostly restaurants and coffee shops to a diverse array of shopping, making, and service experiences over the past few years has been dramatic, and not accidental. Ben Mauk, Real Estate and Planning Manager for UW Tacoma, says that three years ago, the university decided to take a different approach when it came to managing its storefronts.

“We had a unique concentration of retail space located in what we think is the most attractive part of Tacoma.” With the allure of museums, the Tacoma Dome, the Prairie Line Trail, and Tacoma Link light rail access, businesses that sparked creativity—like Tinkertopia—and provided experiences along with products or services seemed a natural fit.

It’s taken a while for all the elements of an urban revival to come into sync—more than 20 years. Union Station, across Pac Ave from UW Tacoma, was renovated and opened as a federal courthouse in 1992. The Washington State History Museum opened in 1996, followed by the first phase of the UW Tacoma campus in 1997, the Museum of Glass in 2002 and the Tacoma Art Museum in 2003. Meanwhile, apartments, condos and hotels have sprung up on all sides of the university campus.

UW Tacoma’s Pac Ave Retail Then and Now

In 1997, when so-called Phase IA of the UW Tacoma campus opened (the renovated Garretson Woodruff Pratt, Birmingham Block, Birmingham Hay & Seed, West Coast Grocery, Walsh Gardner and Snoqualmie Library), the Pacific Avenue retail tenants leasing space from UW Tacoma included:


Taco del Mar
University Book Store


Today, in 2015, the list is much longer:


Do the Extraordinary
Elemental Pizza
Granolas Frozen Yogurt
Hello Cupcake
Hot Rod Dog
Jimmy John’s
Purple Peacock
Renaissance Café
Savor Creperie
South Sound Running
Than Bros. Pho
University Book Store
Urban Xchange


This is in addition to established businesses on Pac Ave who are in buildings not owned by UW, including The Harmon, Abela, Senergo and Applebaum’s Violin Shop; and others who lease space elsewhere on campus from UW, such as Metro Coffee, Old Spaghetti Factory (soon to relocate to Pacific Ave a couple of blocks north of UW Tacoma), and The Swiss. Visit UWT Downtown for a guide for students and visitors to the UW Tacoma neighborhood.

Simple market growth has contributed substantially to the downtown retail revival, but some portion of the revival can be credited to the strategic vision of the university. From the earliest days of planning the permanent campus, renting out retail space was seen to be symbolic of the UW Tacoma mission—that of an urban-serving institution that engages with its community. As its first chancellor, Vicky Carwein, said in 1997, “We are absolutely meeting this mission.” Since that time, the campus population has grown from 150 faculty and staff with 1,100 students to 500 faculty and staff with 4,800 students (estimated for fall of 2015).

Landlord with Heart

Ben Mauk, the campus real estate manager, works with tenants to maximize their likelihood of success. He has successfully partnered with Spaceworks, the joint venture between the City of Tacoma and the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber that helps nurture creative businesses by matching them up with property owners. At UW Tacoma, Tinkertopia and Do the Extraordinary got their start with support from Spaceworks.

Mauk and his team have been meticulous when strategizing about what types of business would work best in each of UW Tacoma’s spaces. Take London’s, for example.

Keila McGahuey, owner of London’s Salon, was approached by Mauk just a little over two years after she opened her first location in the Esplanade building on Thea Foss Waterway. “My first reaction to expanding so soon was ‘no way,’” she says.  But once she saw the space and imagined the potential, she was hooked. “I loved the energy and location on campus, and being right next to the steps and directly across from the light rail.”

She’s also adjusting the concept of her second salon. Rather than housing self-employed stylists, like at her Dock Street location, McGahuey will hire hair stylists new to the industry and provide in-salon education and mentoring, fulfilling a vision of UW Tacoma’s planning team to create partnerships within the campus community “that support a living and learning environment.” The price point will cater to students and families, and she will also offer natural manicures and pedicures, a new service for her salon.

Three of the four new businesses opened by the end of July, and Elemental Pizza will be open by fall quarter, when street front upgrades will take place and new awnings are set to arrive. The result of this careful planning and partnering will be a city center that draws visitors planning to stay all day, and a vibrant campus community that embraces its urban heart.

Written by: 
Rachel Ervin / August 14, 2015
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or