Recycling the Past to Build the Future
Tacoma searched for years to find an identity. While the search continued, the city found out who it was not by tearing down what it used to be, but by restoring, reclaiming, and reutilizing what was there already. The result is a city becoming a leader at cleaning and reusing.
- By Dan Putnam
- Jul 14, 2016
For years, it stood out like a sore thumb. A four-story, monolithic concrete parking garage in the heart of downtown called Park Plaza South. Built in 1970, it was touted as a savior for the city of Tacoma, Wash. It would revitalize downtown in the face of urban flight, its boosters said, because it would draw shoppers back from suburban malls.
Decades after it opened, both the urban flight and the architectural remedy was frustrating and confusing to citizens, council members, the mayor, and state leaders. Asking any building to reverse a trend is asking a lot. Asking this building to do it was tantamount to pure lunacy.
Tacoma is one of the Pacific Northwest’s most beautiful cities. Spread along the magnificent shores of Puget Sound in the shadow of majestic Mount Rainier, Tacoma should have been one of the region’s premier cities by 1970. But if its beautiful natural setting was a serious attraction, its location posed a problem. Seattle is just 35 miles to the north, and in the tough economic climate of the 1970s, what jobs there were tended to be up the road.
It's an old story: second cities often struggle with identity. In Tacoma, dollars were spent for marketing programs to define the city to attract citizens and jobs. Tacoma remained strong, just not as strong as Seattle. And there it stood.
Now, however, Tacoma is thriving as a center of green building, green technology, and green thought leadership.
Becoming a Leader in Creative Reuse
It all started when a campus of the University of Washington opened in the downtown core. It was a gamble for the city, but it paid off in spades. The UW Tacoma campus spurred growth and gave the city a burgeoning knowledge capital of young, entrepreneurial workers.
So Tacoma made a concerted effort to clean up. The city started by cleaning the waterways, polluted from decades of industry. New strategies, new technologies, such as "fingerprinting" of pollutants in the water, and new processes were developed, in partnership between UW Tacoma and the city. Suddenly, Tacoma found countries from all over the world asking about the city’s success in cleaning urban waters.
Tacoma's downtown had character. And instead of wiping it out, the city reclaimed it, just as it had reclaimed the waterways. In an effort to be sustainable and adaptive while keeping that character, the city stressed creatively repurposing and developing older and historic buildings, which other cities, including Seattle, had been tearing down for new development. Almost overnight, Tacoma became a leader in green building and creative reuse. UW Tacoma, founded in 1990, transformed old warehouses into classrooms and created bike and walking paths from abandoned railroad beds. Abandoned breweries reopened as offices and business headquarters. And a mining pit purchased by Pierce County in 1992 re-opened as Chambers Bay Golf Course in 2007. Just last year, it was the site of the 2015 U.S. Open, the first championship hosted in the Pacific Northwest.
A City Resurgent
Tacoma was a city resurgent. Except for that old, monolithic Park Plaza South—too expensive to tear down, an eyesore too large to leave as is. So Tacoma decided to repurpose it. And how and what they did set a regional precedent of green efficiency that has yet to be surpassed.
In 2005, the City of Tacoma solicited public/private partnership proposals to revitalize the Park Plaza South garage. Pacific Plaza Development LLC, made up of several local families, proposed adding 35,000 square feet of high-end retail space, 70,000 square feet of Class A office on two floors of new construction above the garage, one level of new parking, and a full renovation to the existing garage. Park Plaza South would be re-born as Pacific Plaza.
During pre-construction, a Turkish bath was discovered 15 feet underneath the Plaza, complete with colorful tiles across the floors and walls. The discovery prompted the idea to mimic the artificial beauty of the bath with a natural, green roof in grasses and native plants to soak up rainwater that would then be collected and stored in the old Turkish bathhouse. The bath-turned-cistern holds an estimated 190,000 gallons of water. During dry summer months, the water is pumped from the cistern back to the roof to keep the plantings green and is also used to flush the building's toilets.
Other sustainable features at Pacific Plaza include 36 percent of the building materials being recycled, from structural steel and panel metal sidings to wood and windows. All of the products used met LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) thresholds for low-emitting materials, while interior materials such as carpet, flooring, paint, and composite woods had low levels of volatile organic compounds.
These features, along with the rainwater collection system, earned the building a NAIOP Sustainable Development Award and LEED Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. While the Platinum certification was the city's first, there now are more than 25 local businesses, schools, or housing complexes that are silver or better LEED-Certified in Tacoma, with many more in the works.
Four of those certifications come from the UW Tacoma. In the center of downtown, the certified Urban Serving University sits at the culmination of the historic Prairie Line Railroad. A cluster of once-decaying buildings was given a new life, and businesses started flocking to the area to take advantage of a new base of knowledge workers.
Other businesses, such as Portland-based brewpub operator McMenamins, caught the wave and started buying key parts of Tacoma’s fine stock of old, 19th and early 20th century buildings. The 1915 Elks lodge is being repurposed and will soon house a funky hotel with numerous restaurants, bars, and music venues, all of which will pay homage to its former grandeur.
It's Never Too Late to Begin Again
It's never too late to find out who you are. Tacoma searched for years to find an identity. While the search continued, the city found out who it was not by tearing down what it used to be, but by restoring, reclaiming, and reutilizing what was there already. The result is a city becoming a leader at cleaning and reusing.
Tacoma is a green city, and that is leading to even more success, new citizens, and new jobs. Turns out, if you rebuild it, they will come.
Dan Putnam P.E., S.E., is a founding member of Pacific Plaza Development LLC in Tacoma, Wash.