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DUSTIN LAWRENCE
Class of 2007

Degree(s): BA in Urban Studies (2007); GIS Certificate (2007)
Employer: City of Tacoma, since 2006
Current Title: Associate Planner
Previous Title: Senior Planner
Previous Degree: AA in Music, Pierce College
Hobbies: Husband and father. Guitar, keyboard, vocals for award-winning cover band, Grinder.

More about Dustin On An Urban Studies Education

He was on a cross-country road trip with his dad when it hit him – how much opportunity there is out there. So much open-ended possibility to be whatever you want – but you have to reach out and take it.

For Dustin Lawrence that meant getting serious about school. He finished his associate’s degree in music at Pierce College and applied to the University of Washington Tacoma’s Urban Studies. It turned out to be a great fit.

Dustin enjoyed the program, particularly classes about urban change and development. He scored an internship with the City of Tacoma scanning and mapping 60 years-worth of planning documents, and was ultimately hired by the City’s planning department before graduating from the program with a BA in Urban Studies and a Certificate in Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

That was nearly a decade ago. Dustin joined the City of Tacoma’s planning department thinking his ultimate goal was to work on big, grand plans for the city’s future – long-range planning resulting in Comprehensive Plans – Master Plans shaping development in the city for decades to come. The intervening years and experiences have shifted his perspective, and given him a more nuanced appreciation for where planners have the most opportunity to make a difference in the life of a community.

Long-range vs short-term planning

Dustin is still with the City of Tacoma, with more than a few years of experiences under his belt, and has reassessed his priorities. He spent some time working with both long-range plans and with short-term planning, and found the latter to be unexpectedly rewarding.

The work of reviewing permit applications and creating rules for the way each parcel of land in a city can be used is vital to economic development and public perception of the city. The people who resolve short-term planning questions related to zoning codes and permitting processes are the public face of the City in so many ways. It’s where the citizens interact with city government.

A good planner can help make that interaction a success. Finding a good way to work with a developer, or to “get to yes” with a frustrated property owner can not only make that customer happy; it can pave the way, almost literally, for development.

“And economic development is paramount,” Dustin explains.

As Dustin sees it, a land use planner gets to facilitate that economic development – within the framework of City code and regulations. When a city’s business districts are thriving, and its businesses bringing in reliable and growing revenue, that means the city too has more resources to put back into public projects, improvements, maintenance, and services – all of which make the city as a whole a better place to be, in turn attracting more residents, businesses, and investment.

Dustin has had a lot of experience with these seemingly small questions throughout his decade with Tacoma. He has also seen the big opportunities that the right answers can facilitate.

Planning for a specialized industry

It’s not often that an entirely new industry is created, and with the legalization of marijuana in Washington State, a new, complicated set of questions around conflicts in state and federal law give a whole new depth to regulating and zoning for that new industry. These questions mean that people around the state and all across the country are watching the decisions made in Washington, and in Tacoma.

As a planner, Dustin has had a hand in this history-making process.

Tacoma is taking a proactive and receptive approach to working with business owners on not only the retail sale of marijuana, but the production (growing the plants), and processing side of the industry that brings products to the retail storefronts popping up around the region. While some cities have taken a just-say-no approach to marijuana businesses and the admitted problems that come with them, Tacoma has said yes... Yes, but let’s do it right.

That’s where the city’s planners come in. They’ve talked with stakeholders in the emerging industry, as well as residents, and owners of property and other businesses in Tacoma. They’ve researched what’s been done elsewhere, and talked with the City of Tacoma’s lawyers and other staff. They have studied Washington State laws regulating the new sector, and have drawn up Tacoma’s own set of regulations on which kinds of marijuana businesses can operate where, and the practical details they need to address before they can open for business.

Dustin worked with Washington State’s Liquor Control Board (now the Liquor and Cannabis Board), and tax and licensing offices to update Tacoma’s Land Use Code to include rules for marijuana businesses.

He also created an interactive map, available on the City’s website, to help the public understand these new rules. Using skills learned from the UW Tacoma Urban Studies program’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) certificate program, Dustin built the map showing prospective business operators where they might be able to open each of the three categories of marijuana-related businesses (production, processing, and retail sale), and where they cannot.

Establishing this initial round of rules for marijuana businesses is just the beginning of regulating the new industry. The work of permitting, regulating, and enforcement will continue to be an ongoing, and probably evolving process.

Revitalizing a neighborhood

Tacoma’s Lincoln District has long been home to a diverse mix of people and businesses, but in recent years, the older buildings and streets have begun to show some wear and tear. It’s a neighborhood with a lot of potential, but one that also faces significant challenges. The packed business district boasts one of the lower vacancy rates in the city, and  includes popular ethnic restaurants. The average income in the neighborhood, however, is below the average for the rest of Tacoma, and the vibrant diversity poses challenges in communicating with and between the many immigrants and ethnic groups who call the district home.

Thanks to an initiative from Tacoma’s city manager’s office, the neighborhood will be getting an infusion of investment. A new streetscape already in the works will bring safer pedestrian, bike, and wheelchair crossings, new landscaping, and a general clean-up of the main drag through the business district. And that’s just the beginning.

Dustin has been privy to nascent conversations about a collaborative, interdepartmental approach aimed at truly revitalizing not only the physical infrastructure of the neighborhood, but also the economic opportunities and human and social capital of its residents and business owners. City departments will work together to find solutions to support businesses and residents, improve safety, and encourage new growth.

As a planner, Dustin gets to see how all that comes together from the inside – and to lend his expertise to help things go smoothly. He will get another chance to contribute to economic development in one particular corner of the city.