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Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center. Photo: Ko Wibowo

My first encounter with Tacoma was unexpected. Eighteen years ago, I was headed to a job interview at a firm I thought was in Seattle but soon discovered was not.

The driver picked me up from Sea-Tac Airport and, to my dread, went south. Heading to Tacoma, we took I-705, exited 21st Street and soon after passed the Tacoma Dome, driving along Pacific Avenue, Tacoma’s main thoroughfare. The University of Washington-Tacoma (UWT) was not there yet — few stores were open, sidewalks were empty, and a blank wall of the Washington State History Museum faced the street. Turning onto Commerce, we passed a number of parking garages and a bus terminal. The streets were littered with paper, and plastic bags were flying around, reminding me of the dangerous streets of New York stereotyped in Hollywood movies. I thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”

Eighteen years later Tacoma is a changed city and still evolving.

Tacoma’s revitalization began when UWT moved in, steadily converting the south downtown portion of Pacific Avenue into a lively street. UWT sensitively used the existing industrial building stock, modernizing it into a pedestrian-oriented campus while preserving the character of the place. The transformation continued with the new Tacoma Art Museum, Museum of Glass, Chihuly Bridge of Glass, Thea Foss Waterway, and the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center. Most recently, Yareton Investment, a local subsidiary of a Chinese company, is planning a mixed-use, two-tower high-rise over 30 stories tall for the site adjacent to the convention center and UWT.

The City of Tacoma continues to favor large-scale developments such as these, as the hope is that they may reshape the city in one fell swoop. But while these developments have collectively changed the look of the city, they have not impacted its urban life. Over the last few years, local entrepreneurs have been generating the signs of new, vital city living that are present in Tacoma today.

In addition to the large developments listed above, revitalization of a different sort has taken place in neighborhoods such as Sixth Avenue, Proctor, Old Town, the Theater District and North Pacific Avenue. Most recently, the Dome District, McKinley and Hilltop neighborhoods have benefited from local entrepreneurs and business-minded citizens who have opened small, one-of-a-kind restaurants, bakeries and bars. These locally flavored, quirky establishments have gained national popularity, as many of them have appeared on the Food Network (Crown Bar, Southern Kitchen Restaurant and Dirty Oscar’s Annex, for example). Similarly, a beer revolution hit Tacoma when a handful of local breweries sprang up, further adding to the city’s renaissance. The contributions these businesses have made to the livelihood of the streets and neighborhood character have been tremendous; the streets are full of parked cars, and the sidewalks are full of people, day and night.

These neighborhood transformations are the result of local entrepreneurs working to energize and revitalize their community — not the City of Tacoma’s planning, guidance or leadership. While the City continues to lure large developments, the key to Tacoma’s transformation is in the smaller growth initiated locally by its citizens; although large-scale projects are important, they very often do not represent local character, as they’re typically driven by budgets and politics.

Tacoma is experiencing significant revitalization, but still, it is not a complete city yet. It is a collection of small gems that are isolated from one another. It’s suburbia. For example, along Pacific Avenue from UWT to the Old City Hall, vacant storefronts, parking lots and garages deaden the streets. The same is true between other neighborhoods. To help remedy this, the light rail opened in 2003, as Sound Transit endeavored to connect several neighborhoods within the downtown core, and the rail will expand to other areas in the near future, stitching together the outer locales. While exciting new developments are cropping up and filling out Tacoma’s urban fabric, it still has room to grow.

As I reflect back on my first encounter with Tacoma, I more vividly remember my experience of the city at the street level than the image of any of its architectural monuments. I believe Tacoma’s future will be defined by those who change the streets, not the skyline, of the city. Small, local developments are imperative to a vital, prosperous city and as such should be given the same incentives as large-scale developments. Small, local developments represent citizens’ dreams to create neighborhoods that reflect their communities and values. These are the kinds of developments Tacoma needs in order to create a dynamic city, spirit of place, genius loci: Tacoma’s identity.

Tacoma is Tacoma, and it needs to be Tacoma, so let Tacomans resolve and shape their city.