Friday, February 1, 2008

Economic Jibba Jabba: Part the Two

Well, I ran out of things to say last night because it was late and my memory was getting sketchy. But now... more!

First off, a continuation of the downtown retail connectivity question. Riding the Link to work today I noticed (or re-noticed) the big enormous gap just north of BKB, stretching for what could easily be three or four shops. I am guessing, from what I know of the area, that this property is owned by UWT. What I don't know is what is there. Are these spaces being used for the UWT campus? Or are they for lease and just not getting used? I can understand the university wanting to use their property for their own purposes (if that's the case), but even so, this retail gap is absolutely slaughtering the chances of connection to further downtown segments, both those northerly and the aforementioned potential track up the hill to 19th and Jefferson.

I'm not espousing anything new here. It's pretty obvious that empty space is bad for business. But what can be done to improve the situation? What sort of business out to go in? One point made last night was the need for retail to fit with its neighbors so they can share customer base. So what have we got down there? We have alternative apparel retail (urbanXchange), wearable art (BKB), a moderate-sized bookstore (UWT) and a destination confectioner (Hello Cupcake). Not to mention the Subway/Taco Del Mar one-two punch, the Harmon, and a Starbucks. So I see two core markets: the mild counterculture and the business lunchers. Any number of things would be suitable: a used bookstore to offset the new product at UWT (though downtown already has a solid used bookshop at each end, so maybe not); another small lunch establishment (maybe a Better-Than-Subway sandwich shop or something); one idea that's bounced around is a newsstand, such as a Bulldog News or similar establishment, which I think would definitely appeal to the lunch-shoppers riding in on the light rail. Maybe even one of the glut of record stores (I mean real record stores, selling vinyl), tired of the excessive competition, could move down from 6th to mesh with the Buzzard/urbanXchange crowd.

Anyway, that's enough of that. On to other things.

Enough with the residential already!

People are talking about how the best way to draw businesses is to increase foot traffic, and too many seem to believe that the best way to have foot traffic is to make sure that people live nearby. I suspect that condo developers have been taking a cue from Seattle, who are in mid-development on a few major downtown condo projects (and by major I mean upwards of $1M per unit). Well guess what? We're not Seattle yet. Seattle downtown is already established as a Place To Be. Trying to mimic their residential placement is foolish. As Prium, among others, have no doubt discovered. I've brought this up elsewhere, but the people moving to be close to downtown are not established residents. Families aren't moving from North End houses to downtown condos. If you're trying to market these places to financial bigshots, you're getting nowhere. Financial big shots have cars. The people moving are people like me. People fresh out of college, just making career inroads at downtown businesses. We are the people who are used to that kind of cluster: having all of our work, food and retail options in walking distance. And we are renters.

If I thought I was staying in Tacoma long term, I'd love to buy a house or a condo. And yes, I'd love for it to be in that area because I would like to go as long as I possibly can without owning a car. But very few people are coming out of college ready to buy, or even knowing where they want to be, geographically, in five years. And it's geography that brings me to...

Accessibility. Public Transit. How we get from one bit to another bit.

Why would I want to buy close to downtown, rather than in a nice residential neighborhood that's more conducive to a future family? Transportation. Right now I live a short walk from one end of the Link, and work a short walk from the other end. The Link does a fantastic job of traversing downtown. Unfortunately, that's all it does. What is severely lacking is a way to get from anywhere else TO downtown in the first place. Yes, nearly all the buses in the city converge there. But compare how many business folk I see on the bus (or saw, when I took the 2 and the 57 to work) to how many I see driving in, parking by the Dome, and taking the Link to the financial district. There is a certain social stigma that comes with the bus system, which is unfortunate. It really is quite reliable and safe. But the Link, being shiny and new, and boasting a fairly consistent security detail, gives off a greater aura of safety to the people that want it.

Our fellow feeder the Tacoma Urbanist has an update on the status of potential expansion to the system. I've got a rather lengthy comment on there of my vision for this, which I will not bother reposting here. Suffice to say that giving people a light rail running from TCC down through 6th ave, Stadium, and into downtown is exactly what we need. We don't need more residences in downtown. We need the people who already live in the existing residential neighborhoods to come down and fill the sidewalks. And for them to come, they need the perception of ease (whether an extended Link stays free, or whether we implement a computerized ticket system so infrequent riders don't need to carry exact change) and the perception of safety (I'm not saying create the illusion of safety, but make apparent the fact that it is already safe).

All of this comes down to one core point: we don't need to infuse downtown with residents. We need to infuse it with reasons to come, and ways to come. No matter where they live, people will go anywhere for their needs if it is easy to get there and made worth going. The constantly packed parking on 6th Ave. should make it apparent that those businesses are not thriving because of the people who live within walking distance.

Anyway, all of these ideas, all this chatter, is rather pointless unless we do one thing (well, two things):

Find the people who care. And then find out how to make everyone else care.

AE and the City of Tacoma have done a great job of finding the people who really care about improving downtown, and the city as a whole. It was pretty clear that everyone at the discussion last night was really passionate about making this work, though each for their own reasons. So we have this core of people willing to make their opinions known. But these aren't the people we need to draw. We're all already in downtown, living, working, supporting businesses. And we're decreeing what we believe will improve it based on our own opinions. But what about everyone else? What about the people who don't care that they're running off to Seattle whenever they want to have fun? How do we make them care about Tacoma? Some of that is simply finding out exactly what they're going to Seattle for and then having that in Tacoma. But more important is finding out what neither has and then bringing in that. What can we do to make the people who moved here for the cheap housing and nothing more see that the more is what matters?

That's the big question that needs answering. And I can't answer it. I'm one of the ones that already loves it here. The answer is out there, among the people that aren't coming to your focus groups, that aren't filling out your online polls, that might not even be voting. We're trying to make people want to come to Tacoma when we have a chunk of the population that barely cares about staying in Tacoma. Make it a place for them, and you'll make it a place for everyone.

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