Pagni & Lenti: A Place for ‘Habitual Congregation’

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With its proximity to the Prairie Line Trail, the Pagni & Lenti building is prepared to become a gateway to the eclectic experience of downtown Tacoma.

A poster detailing the history of Pagni & Lenti sits in the window of what will be Elemental Pizza.In its 124-year history, the Pagni & Lenti building has been home to several tenants, but none for as long as the Pagni & Lenti Grocery, the family-run establishment from which the building later acquired its name. The Italian grocery store operated for nearly four decades in the same location, becoming a neighborhood institution.

And now, what once was a place for Tacoma’s Italian-American community to congregate is poised to be reborn, with the arrival of the newest retail tenant on the UW Tacoma campus, the Seattle-based Elemental Pizza.

The building was constructed in 1890-92 by Tacoma realtor and developer Russell T. Joy, who also built the structure at 1716-30 Pacific Ave., now in use as UW Tacoma’s Joy Building. It was renovated in the late 1980s by then-owner Alice Mack.

In terms of campus development, campus life and UW Tacoma’s continuing role as an economic catalyst for the region, the Pagni & Lenti building stands as an anchor for the rest of the retail stores and restaurants on Pacific Avenue – from 17th to 21st street and beyond – which, according to UW Tacoma real estate manager Ben Mauk is a critical location.

“If you can create something that is vibrant and busy and interesting, it drives the success of everyone else on the strip,” he says, mentioning Grassi’s Garden Cafe, a longtime tenant of the university’s and most recent tenant of the Pagni & Lenti building that was, as Mauk puts it, “one of the first to put a flag on downtown and the UW Tacoma campus as a place to grow a business."

One of the unique aspects of being an urban-serving university is the opportunity that arises from questions of how the space around the campus can be used to fuel a successful retail district with an iconic anchor point (or points) where the community congregates.

“If you really look at the campus,” Mauk says. “These retail areas and the location of campus offer opportunities where we can create space and the community can really come together. And with the quality of operations and product that Elemental Pizza co-owners Steve Rosen and James Allard offer—in addition to the uniqueness of that space—I think we’re going to have something impressive.”

In discussing the importance of location and the potential impact of having a restaurant like Elemental Pizza in a prime spot like the Pagni & Lenti building, Mauk refers to the notion of “third place” – a community-development concept built on the idea of a communal setting that is separate from the two most common environments: home and work. The primary tenet of third place is the notion that the space be highly accessible, while others stress the importance of a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere, the availability of food and drink and for the space to become a place of habitual congregation.

While it seems like a stretch to assume the term was ever thrown around at the Pagni & Lenti Grocery, the concept of third place was a major component of the grocery’s appeal and success, as the store provided the community with a place to gather, making it less a simple grocery store, and more a neighborhood institution.

Making space for Elemental Pizza in the Pagni & Lenti building. | Photo: Shoshana GlickmanThird place is nothing new to UW Tacoma. The University Bookstore’s latest renovation that incorporated a seating area and fireplace to be used by anyone – not just those affiliated with the university – is an effective example of the concept.

With its proximity to the Prairie Line Trail, as well as other downtown attractions like the Tacoma Art Museum and the Museum of Glass, the Pagni & Lenti building is prepared to become a gateway to the eclectic experience of downtown Tacoma.

“There will be a synergy between Pagni & Lenti and the Prairie Line Trail,” Mauk says. “When the trail is complete enough to go somewhere, it will be the kind of place where, if there’s a cycling group that was going to do a ride on the trail, maybe Elemental Pizza would be the place where you’d start – or, better yet, maybe that’s where you end up.”

The synergy that Mauk describes between the trail and the building that Mauk describes will become more evident when the Prairie Line Trail is completed. “At that point,” he says. “You’ll have the opportunity to go from Elemental Pizza, down by the museum, down to the esplanade by the water, up along the Thea Foss to the Museum of Glass and over the bridge back to campus.”

That circle is expected to generate a greater opportunity for those in the community to come and experience the many shops and attractions along the route, and to participate in the diverse events around what will be a unique, accessible place.

At present, the plan is for Elemental Pizza to open sometime in late spring or early summer 2015. “We really want to see them here in time for the U.S. Open,” Mauk says. “The U.S. Open is going to be an opportunity for Tacoma to get some really nice exposure, and Elemental Pizza can really help us do that.”

Written by: 
Kevin Yeoman / February 19, 2015
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, Communications, 253-692-4536 or