Friday, May 9, 2008

Walkable Tacoma: Business District Walkability

After reading about the community walkability lecture happening at UWT on Monday, I got to thinking about what does make an area walkable, and how well we're doing at it. While he says it to be a "generally flippant dude" (a cause I can get firmly behind), Mr. Driscoll brings up a valid point: in a car-based culture, it is easy for those with cars to ignore what makes an area walkable.

To me, there are two major flavors of walkability. The first is Business Disctrict Walkability, which I will abbreviate to BDW because I'm sick of typing walkability. BDW is part of what Erik is talking about in his Spew comment: the proximity of different destinations within an area. While some of these could be residential condos, that's not the core issue of BDW. The intent here is not necessarily to mean that people can walk to the businesses, but rather that once they are in the area they can navigate it entirely on foot.

Let's look at the example of downtown Tacoma vs. the Tacoma Mall. The mall is winning, primarily because of a greater BDW. It's not that people can walk to the mall... the majority of Tacoma would have to drive to either, and this will still be the case no matter how many condo projects go up in either place. The issue is that once at the mall, people can park once, walk down, walk back, and be done shopping for the day. Everything's packed in and can easily absorb business from neighbors. Yes, this makes for the "anonymous shopping experience" that I've heard people complaining about, but there is a balance to be struck between a personal experience and a convenient one, and most people will tend toward the convenient.

Then we have downtown. There's minimal issue with the physical ability to walk the area: sidewalks abound, with a few notable exceptions (such as outside the Luzon and Park Plaza South). The issue here is business density. I've already ranted about this an awful lot, so I won't get into it too much, but the short version is: somebody comes down to the Rock to get a pizza, they see a cool little CD store next door. Maybe they buy something at Buzzard's, and then... they see nothing else of interest and go home. Someone else goes to urbanXchange because they heard about it from a friend. They see a couple restaurants, maybe they go to the Harmon, maybe they continue down the street until... big huge retail gap. Even if they do make it past that to Grassis, and even to the corner where they see Tacoma Art Supply, where do they go from there?

The Link was, I think, designed to combat this. As has been pointed out time and again, it doesn't really get people anywhere. Its main practical purposes are 1) getting people from T-Dome parking to Tacoma's attempt at an IFSA and 2) covering the major retail gaps of downtown. And is it working? Doesn't seem so, and there are two major reasons why: first off, even in the little retail pockets that we do have, there isn't all that much. But even if the parking garage renovations lead to an actual retail cluster there, believing that free public transit will get people from Freighthouse Square to the Museum District to the Theatre District on a whim assumes that the main reason people don't do that is laziness, which is a very faulty assumption. I walk an awful lot, and have no problem covering the span of the Link on foot. But I certainly wouldn't do it on a whim if I didn't know what waited for me on the other end. The success of any mall or shopping center, or the University district in Seattle (what I'd really like our downtown to be like) is visibility and connectivity. People don't just walk to the store down the street because it's close. They walk there because they see it from where they are and it catches their eye. And to get there they are forced to walk past every other business on the strip. Even if someone does hop on the link to get from, say, Freighthouse to Sanford & Son, any interesting place they spot along the way requires a backtrack. People are more likely to walk into a new business if they are standing right at the door when they see it.

Obviously the perfect solution is for all the clusters of business to expand until they collide, and maybe in 10 years that will happen. But first we need small businesses to actually survive long enough to be expanded upon. I have high hopes for the possibilities of having the North have of UWT on Pacific filled in (theoretically the next project after they finish the new common area) and the retail renovation of the south Park Plaza. Hopefully once Tacoma gets done worrying about Russel and DaVita, whichever way they both swing, we can start actually encouraging the small businesses that can really make an area like that flourish.


Anonymous said...

Walkability Walkability Walkability Walkability Walkability Walkability Walkability Walkability Walkability Walkability Walkability Walkability Walkability Walkability Walkability Walkability Walkability Walkability.

It's less irritating to type it when you copy and paste. But, boy, it sure gets irritating to read. You probably noticed that.

Seriously though, good points made. People need to know what's there, see what's there, be attracted to what's there, before they'll make the effort to walk there.

izenmania said...

I don't like overuse of any word, especially in my own writing. But there aren't a lot of synonyms for "walkability" other than phrases like "ability to be walked".

propriatress said...

one of the greatest bummers about small business in downtown T Town, is that landlords think they are in Steve used to say....This is Tacoma not La Jolla......I've been shopping for bigger space and 20 bucks a square foot is insane.....Therefore the bldgs will remain empty (what do they care?) and the only ones who can come in are those with big $$$$ in they pockets.....I've been in T Town for 25+ years, and it's bad bad...No the future isn't here and the longer the landlords act like The Landed Gentry.....what has this got to do with walkability.....Yes ! Folks won't walk an extra block of scary empty blds to get to the other side of the street, or down the street, like you said. If Tacoma wants to fill up its gaping holes, someone has to clue in the landlords or the city needs to start an Affirmative Action program for small locate downtown. Why is South Tacoma Way, or International district...Full? Cheap Rent. It all begins right there.....that's the answer to the chicken and rent attracts business....blocks fill up ...people walk...and spend...I like the LINK but it's assbackwards as far as urban planning...but that's Tacoma for ya.

izenmania said...

Yeah, the out of town ownership is a major issue. They are not invested in boosting the community, as all they need is someone in the space.

Like I said, I have hopes for the North side of UWT's Pacific border. Theoretically once they stop using it as as staging ground for their current construction project they will start converting that into retail space. I just hope they can commit to leaving it as retail, and avoid booting out businesses later on if they need to expand classroom space. They, at least, have a vested interest in making that space interesting. Surrounding community can play a big part in drawing Freshmen, especially as they slowly move toward having on-campus residence.