December 2004 - Urban Studies: By Beth Luce

The decision to renovate in the Warehouse District catapulted Tacoma into a well-publicized renaissance that has marveled visitors and made Tacomans giddy. They’d already had a taste of preserving and celebrating the city’s past with the renovation of Union Station, the Pantages and Rialto Theaters. Sullivan, who was the city’s historic preservation officer at the time, says that building the UWT campus allowed the city’s renaissance to reach a critical mass, giving the city confidence to rebuild.

“When Union Station was threatened, it was like the patron of the family becoming ill,” Sullivan says. Saving the Beaux Arts style building for a federal court house had given Tacomans the idea that its history was not something to be ashamed of. The UWT campus, which gave Tacomans further reason to feel proud of their history, was like welcoming a new member into an old family. “The campus brought new life to the city, which had lost its sense of pride and identity,” says Sullivan.

Before the UWT came along, “people talked about taking the wrecking ball to those buildings,” Baarsma says. “Instead, this has led to a different feel about the city. People are investing and taking chances.”

UWT brought people to the Warehouse District where before there had been none. Students, faculty and staff became customers for the fledgling area businesses, which in turn encouraged further development in the area. Now the district is filling with businesses. The new Tacoma Convention Center opened in November, and several Tacoma hotels are now available for visitors. Condos and apartment buildings, with a mix of renovation and new construction, have popped up along the Thea Foss Waterway and on the hillside overlooking Commencement Bay.

The Link light rail system began rolli ng in summer of 2003, connecting the University to the Sounder train station near the Tacoma Dome at one end of town, and to Antique Row in the downtown business center at the other. Sidewalks, lighting, trees and benches have been added along the route to encourage pedestrians. New restaurants have opened in the last several years, including El Gaucho and The Melting Pot.

UWT’s neighbors—the Tacoma Art Museum, Washington History Museum and the Museum of Glass—create a cultural concentration. Pedestrians can cross the Chihuly Bridge that links the university, Union Station, museums and the Thea Foss Waterway, a wide pedestrian esplanade.

“UWT has had a tremendous impact on the city in many ways,” says Scott Huntley, Tacoma’s media relations director. “It really was a catalyst for all of the things we’ve done in the last 10 to 15 years in the city. It was a critical feature in reforming the entire city.”

Grimm, who credits the campus as beginning Tacoma’s “grand rejuvenation,” says he believes the Hilltop neighborhood just west of the campus, which has for many years had a bad reputation for crime, will improve as better housing goes up there.

Starbucks rents UWT space on Pacific Avenue. Photo by Mary Levin.

Starbucks rents UWT space on Pacific Avenue. Photo by Mary Levin.

Huntley says UWT has had an overall effect on crime in the area, including Hilltop. “If you looked there 20 years ago, before UWT, there were a lot of derelict buildings, a lot of drug activity going on in that area, that has now been eliminated by the redevelopment. You can walk down and see it with your own eyes,” he says. “Hilltop itself is in a comeback mode. Did the UWT have an effect on that? Harder to say specifically, because it’s a different neighborhood. But the whole Tacoma revitalization began with UWT. This is really what got Tacoma going in the right direction in the first place.”

Tacomans are proud of UWT. “It’s an extraordinary campus setting and it accomplishes some worthy goals. It preserves the city’s heritage and history,” crows Mayor Baarsma.

“It’s been a huge source of pride,” agrees Ebersole, who was the school’s first commencement speaker in 1991 when four students received the first UWT diplomas. “It’s benefited not only the students, who receive a good quality education and a UW degree, but it’s benefited the community.”

Including retail space as part of the master plan changed the traditional nature of a campus, says UWT Interim Chancellor Steven Olswang. “We think of ourselves as a pedestrian area, instead of a separate enclave, like Seattle is. It’s a whole different concept, an urban metropolitan concept of education.” He adds that UWT will continue to partner with the community in trying to keep the character of the neighborhood alive. “This campus is an extraordinarily successful experiment,” Olswang says, pointing out that 14 years after its birth, UWT has produced 5,800 graduates who previously didn’t have the option to finish their degrees. “It’s just a phenomenal story.”

Twenty years from now, when visitors look up the Snoqualmie Hillclimb, they’ll see a sprawling, 46-acre campus, where thousands of south Puget Sound students come to be educated. They’ll have a hard time believing that there was a time when nothing lived here but pigeons, the only lessons taught were in the school of hard knocks and the past was something to be forgotten.

Beth Luce is a Port Orchard free-lancer and frequent contributor to Columns.


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