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    NW Urban: Art and history remake Tacoma

    The Tacoma Art Museum wants to be the "heart of the city." Its new wing is driving an enlightened downtown redevelopment.
    The Tacoma Art Museum: Ground zero for urban revolution.

    The Tacoma Art Museum: Ground zero for urban revolution. Photo: Jack Hunter

    People say adulthood is defined by the capacity for delayed gratification. By that definition, Tacoma may be the portrait of mature cityhood in the Pacific Northwest.

    It is an increasingly urban, even urbane center, with its waterfront esplanades and light rail, creatively re-used historic warehouse buildings, growing museum district and downtown university. Not that it’s all about the knowledge economy. A logging truck can still cut you off as you come in on I-705, especially if you’ve been focusing on the shimmering hangar of Tacoma’s latest icon, the year-old LeMay America’s Car Museum. But after more than 20 years of innovative planning and investment, public and private, the city seems poised to fulfill its 140-year-old self-definition as a the “City of Destiny.” And the 78-year-old Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) is at the heart of it all.

    TAM has occupied a steel-clad, Antoine Predock-designed building at the corner of Pacific Avenue and 17th Street since 2003. Director Stephanie Stebich calls the museum’s current, 50,000 square foot space “glorious, variable, and light-filled.” The spiraling series of different-sized galleries ramps up to an education wing with a rewarding view of Mount Rainier.

    But the museum wanted a stronger presence on the street. Indeed, one of the primary goals in TAM’s 2008 Strategic Plan was to turn the location into “a gathering space for people, performances, and art.” When museum officials put out a call for the redesign of their entrance plaza in 2009, they said it should “be seen as the heart of Tacoma.” They commissioned Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen, the firm that had served as the executive architects for their 2003 building, to imagine a new plaza. (The firm reorganized as Olson Kundig in 2010.)

    The museum was not alone in its ambition to create a new public space at this critical junction between  the city’s commercial core and south downtown’s burgeoning cluster of new museums, university campus and housing. 

    In partnership with the city, and with help from a National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” grant, TAM’s leaders grappled with how to better connect the museum’s plaza to Pacific Avenue and to the complex array of streets, rail lines, walkways and open spaces — like Tollefson Plaza at the northwest corner of the intersection — that converge at the corner of Pacific and 17th.

    The museum anchors the northwest corner of a cultural precinct on the east side of Pacific Avenue, which includes the Washington State Museum and the Museum of Glass. Restored 19th and early 20th century buildings, now part of the University of Washington-Tacoma campus, line the west side of Pacific Avenue, wide and busy with a steady flow of cars, trucks and buses traveling in both directions. Light rail runs by on its way to the convention center. The Prairie Line Trail, an 80-foot right of way that was still running freight trains until 2004, cuts across the intersection. Plans for its transformation into North America’s newest linear park are underway.

    The whole area cries out for a greater connection among the museum, the university campus and the waterfront just across the railroad tracks. But short of closing off Pacific Avenue, what kind of design can elegantly provide that cohesion? (Early ideas included temporary street closures and a canopy across the intersection.)

    This puzzle was never going to be easy to solve, but it became more complicated in 2012 when the museum announced that, thanks to a generous gift of Western American art from Erivan and Helga Haub, its plaza was now part of a much larger, $15.5 million plan for a whole new wing, incorporating the plaza design and improvements to the existing museum.

    The Haub Wing’s design team is led by the Seattle-based Olson Kundig firm — with Tom Kundig as design principal — and includes landscape architects Murase Associates. Kundig is celebrated for responding to landscape and place with an approach that is simultaneously abstract, material and mechanical. In Tacoma, he faces a formidable and compelling challenge.

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    Posted Thu, Aug 15, 9:44 a.m. Inappropriate

    This is a great and thoughtful article, particularly as it traces the connections between the planned Haub Wing addition and other factors across history and geography. Only thing I might add for completeness is that City of Tacoma is in the process of completing a major streetscape redevelopment project along Pacific Avenue in front of TAM, extending from S. 17th Street (TAM) to S 7th (its juncture with Schuster Parkway... from which point one can follow the waterfront to Point Defiance). All design aspects of this effort have been closely coordinated with TAM, UW Tacoma, and countless other players. Tacoma's latest comprehensive plan has redefined downtown itself... so that UW Tacoma (at roughly its juncture with TAM at S. 17th and Pacific Avenue) sits geographically and, in many ways functionally, at the center, the very heart, of downtown Tacoma.


    Posted Thu, Aug 15, 11:56 a.m. Inappropriate

    Aha, the word "design" is missing after the word "urban" in the headline of this series. Surely it is not the intent of the professionals sharing Bremerton and Tacoma's stories to confuse dear readers as to the distinctions between "urban planning" and "urban design"?

    Both cities are slated to take the bulk of their county's population/jobs growth as "metro cities," which motivates them to invest heavily in urban amenities—" museums, theaters, boutique trains, and other measures of "urban design." None of which are substitute for, or certan signs of successful planned urban performance. Tacoma is to take 32% of Pierce County's population growth instead of the 5% that the 2010 census revealed it now does. Bremerton is to take 26% of Kitsap's instead of 2.45%.

    176,664— '90 census
    198,000— '95 estimate
    193,556 —'00 census
    199,600 —'05 estimate
    198,397—'10 census
    200,400—'13 estimate

    Those interested in the parameters of planned performance look here:
    Doing some math with OFM's components of change data tells a good tale too.

    Those interested in urban design read on.


    Posted Thu, Aug 15, 9:43 p.m. Inappropriate

    Tacoma also deserves kudos for cleaning up Foss Waterway and creating a pleasant, walkable space that, excepts for a few lingering rough spots, connects a a nice series of parks, restaurants and stately old factory buildings repurposed into lofts. Eventually, a new tunnel will take people from downtown to Dock Street. Right now the new elevator is in glitch mode...


    ...but hopefully it will soon run smoothly.

    Mud Baby

    Posted Sun, Aug 18, 8:39 a.m. Inappropriate

    There's an elephant in the room! Tacoma will have to take extreme measures to remove it and instead they make small incremental "improvements" and it will never achieve its destiny. Tacoma needs to move its heart. The founders located the city in the wrong spot, just like the founders did with Seattle when it was founded in Alki. You have to go to extreme measures to overcome a city the has a northerly aspect.

    In the gloom and doom sun starved months in the northwest the last thing you need is to look the wrong way. Cities in northern climate should never be built on slopes facing away from the sun period! Now that its too late for that either Tacoma accepts its fate or it will decide to be extraordinary in spite of this. I am speaking from experience in this city. I was the landscape architect with Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen that won the competition for the Tacoma Art Musem Plaza and the landscape architect for the Pacific Avenue Streetscape Project. I was so excited to see the potential there of a gritty but rejuvenated city and I called the potential Tacoma Nexus. I removed myself from work there after realizing a singular strong vision was not understood and that the reviving of the downtown would be a piecemeal bunch of band aids.

    Tacoma will be better with all these improvements but it is not enough to overcome the one thing Tacoma cannot change, its aspect and its timidity. It will not be a big city like Seattle and its brand of urbanism would be better served as an Oceanside city with amazing amenities throughout and inspite of its orientation. It should look to Bellingham or to Bremerton for inspiration unless they jump the whole city across the bay and look southerly-the right way.


    Posted Sun, Aug 18, 12:05 p.m. Inappropriate

    Thank you for this story, Ray. Yesterday my husband and I took houseguests from Boston to visit TAM, planning to spend just a couple of hours in Tacoma, and we ended up staying five. TAM's beautifully curated galleries absorbed us longer than we expected; then we moseyed over to watch native tribal dances in the sunny, breezy plaza between TAM and the Washington State History Museum and afterward spent two hours in wonderful WSHM. Lovely day!

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