South Downtown Subarea Plan: An Award-Winning Collaboration For the Future of Tacoma

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Developed through a community planning process with participation from many interested organizations, including UW Tacoma, the South Downtown Subarea Plan and Environmental Impact Study (EIS) is the City of Tacoma’s ambitious vision for the future.

By concentrating on 600 acres of land that combines commercial, industrial and historic areas, the plan aims to prepare the south downtown area for public and private development space that will further stimulate economic growth in the area. The plan has pre-approved 30 million square feet of potential development space that focuses on vast improvements in area infrastructure as well as public transportation. 

Initially conceived as a collaborative effort between UW Tacoma and the City of Tacoma, the plan was approved by the Tacoma City Council in 2013.

More recently, the South Downtown Subarea Plan has garnered some very positive attention, as it was recently the recipient of Governor Jay Inslee’s 2014 Smart Communities Award. The plan was also recognized with the 2014 Joint APA/PAW Planning Award from the Planning Association of Washington and the Washington chapter of the American Planning Association.

Recognition from the governor and the state’s planning association creates plenty of good will for the comprehensive, long-range plan, but it doesn’t necessarily explain what the plan entails and how UW Tacoma is involved.

So let’s take a look at what the plan is and what it aims to do.

What is the purpose of the plan?

The purpose of the South Downtown Subarea Plan is to encourage both private and public investment in the south downtown area through a combination of infrastructure improvements and enhancement projects.

In order to make the plan as attractive to potential investors and incoming businesses as possible, UW Tacoma and the City of Tacoma worked together to complete the EIS (environmental impact study) and SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) review themselves, thereby outlining the vision for the south downtown area. This effort removes the need for individual investors or businesses to spend six months to a year doing their own studies on a project-by-project basis.

Milt Tremblay, Director of Sustainability and Campus Planning at UW Tacoma, and co-lead on the South Downtown Subarea Plan and EIS, says this tactic “takes care of several unknowns” for investors and businesses. The impact of this approach emphasizes project development with a more efficient approval process and more flexible zoning will ensure the time frames of getting projects up and running are dramatically hastened.

Certain other improvements that will be prioritized by the plan include the development and use of open spaces, such as the currently-under-construction Prairie Line Trail, the Foss Waterway Park, and several potential pocket and destination parks that will help increase the urban area’s visual appeal and have the potential to provide sanctuary for urban wildlife. The plan will also include improvements to roadways and parking, as well as upgrades and expansion of pedestrian and bike paths.

In addition to emphasizing infrastructure and visual improvements, the plan will serve transportation concerns by concentrating efforts to further the development of light rail and expand access to buses and trains, making the plan much more of a “transit-oriented development” than those who are familiar with the plan may realize.  

According to Tremblay, “transit oriented development” means focusing on an increase in population density, so that options like the Link Light Rail and Sounder trains can better serve the downtown area. “You’re not going to put in a Link in the suburbs,” Tremblay says. “You’ve got to have it in an urban area, and you have to increase the [population] density to make that pay off.”

The South Downtown Subarea Plan aims to achieve this by continuing the transformation of Tacoma into a transit hub, but making that hub as attractive to commuters and potential residents as possible.

“Let’s be a transit hub,” Tremblay says. “Let’s bring people into the community. But once we get them here, let’s give them something to do. Let them go to school, let them work, let them have activities like going to the park, or to the theater.”

What areas are included in the plan?

The South Downtown Tacoma Area Plan is actually one of three subareas in downtown Tacoma currently in the planning stages. The other two areas are the 520 acres comprising the adjacent North Downtown Subarea and the 271-acre Hilltop Subarea, bringing the total area to approximately 1,391 acres of proposed redevelopment.

At 600 acres, that makes the South Downtown Tacoma Area Plan the largest of the three. But what does that acreage really include?

As the name suggests, it’s roughly the southern half of downtown Tacoma. Five distinct districts make up the subarea: the Dome District, Brewery District, UW Tacoma/Museum District, and the southern portions of the Hillside Neighborhood and the Thea Foss Waterway.

What major projects are being planned?

The South Downtown Tacoma Area Plan can be broken down into a series of significant projects that focus on transportation redevelopment, multi-use pedestrian walkways and future residential locations.

Amtrak & Pierce Transit Site Redevelopment

The plan’s emphasis on transportation improvements means that Tacoma’s Amtrak station would be relocated to Freighthouse Square on East 25th St., from its current location on Puyallup Avenue.

The station’s relocation is actually a joint undertaking, as it is part of the state’s and Sound Transit’s Point Defiance Bypass Project. The collaboration will reroute Amtrak passenger trains to an existing track adjacent to I-5, traveling through south Tacoma, Lakewood and DuPont.

Relocating the Amtrak station and refocusing its passenger routes has two distinct advantages. The plan will permit two more trains to run from Seattle through Tacoma to Portland, giving commuters faster, more consistent service. In addition, moving passenger trains to a different route will allow the BNSF-owned Point Defiance tracks to be designated as freight-only.

Prairie Line Trail

Many people have watched with excitement as the UW Tacoma portion of the Prairie Line Trail has progressed throughout the summer. Now that work on that section is complete, all eyes turn to the rest of the trail, which aims to connect the Foss Waterway, UW Tacoma, various downtown destinations and many regional bicycle and pedestrian networks through a multi-use pathway.

By running through several landmark areas, the Prairie Line Trail will offer pedestrians and bicyclists a scenic alternative, highlighting downtown Tacoma as a culturally vibrant location. The trail will also serve as an important community resource, by increasing the walkability of the downtown area, while simultaneously bringing the area’s history into focus, and helping to recognize its current diversity.

It is also hoped that the Prairie Line Trail will spur further economic development in and around the area, by connecting the waterfront with the downtown area, giving users access to Tacoma’s various districts in a way they’ve never had before.

Other Projects

The South Downtown Subarea plan includes several other projects that are either already underway or will be very soon.

Among them are residential developments, including The Henry, a 161-unit mixed-use building, and another as-yet unnamed building across from Freighthouse Square, which is intended to compensate for the lack of housing in and around the Dome District.

Meanwhile, the Foss Waterway Central Park Development fulfills the open space component of the plan. The project, a ¾ acre pocket park, is part of a mile long area along the waterfront currently being redeveloped and restored. Some of the improvements include an extension of the existing waterfront waking area, sitting areas, a restroom, and displays allowing for interactive art installations.

What part does UW Tacoma play?

Established in 1990, and expanding onto its current location in 1997, UW Tacoma has powered an extraordinary transformation that reaches well beyond the confines of the campus. The university’s redevelopment has already garnered several awards for the adaptive reuse of several century-old brick railroad-era buildings that converted the structures into state-of-the-art classrooms and educational facilities. 

Through its collaboration with UW Tacoma, the City of Tacoma has, for the first time, had the opportunity to take a major-institution approach to planning. That means the entire area of an institution in question (e.g., a university or hospital) is taken into consideration when evaluating plans for future development.

A recent example would be the under-construction University Y Student Center, which, utilizing the major-institution approach, is not required to have separate on-site parking. UW Tacoma could consider existing parking supply across its entire campus when calculating parking requirements. Under the older approach, the campus would have had to fulfill parking needs for the University Y independently of any other existing campus parking infrastructure.

The ongoing development of UW Tacoma’s urban-serving campus is working in tandem with the City of Tacoma’s long-range plan to capitalize on the area’s projected future growth. “One thing about our urban-serving campus,” said campus planner Milt Tremblay, “As we go, the community goes, and vice versa. One cannot be successful without the other. This is collaboration. It is mutually beneficial for both the City of Tacoma and UW Tacoma.”

Written by: 
Kevin Yeoman / October 24, 2014
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, Media Relations, 253-692-4536,