Will plans to rezone Tacoma to allow for more housing satisfy the City Council?

Tacoma’s Planning Commission has sent recommendations for future land use meant to spur development onto the City Council.

It did so with an acknowledgment that the process has been swift, given the timeline set by council, and the results far from perfect, with much of the debate at Wednesday’s meeting focused on the land-use map.

The final recommendations in the first phase of the city’s Home in Tacoma project offers a hybrid of two earlier growth scenarios.

“This is still not set in stone. And I just also want to remind people, this goes to City Council; they’re the final deciders,” said commission Chair Anna Petersen at Wednesday’s meeting.

“The timeline that council has wanted on this has been pretty demanding,” said Commissioner Andrew Strobel, “and I think for us to respond to council’s requests and what we have produced here is definitely not something that I would consider to be perfect, but something that I think would at least start a conversation with council and then them ultimately making the decisions.”

He added, “I think that we’re being responsive to council. I think that we’re addressing the fact that we’re in a housing crisis and there’s an emergency for us to take some action on here.”

Strobel was among the six later to vote in favor of moving the recommendations on to council. Three on the nine-member commission voted against sending the measure forward, including Vice Chair Jeff McInnis, who planned to add a “minority report” explaining opposition to accompany the recommendations package.

The other two voting against moving the project to council were Commissioners Carolyn Edmonds and Ryan Givens.

The plan proposes low-scale and mid-scale land use to replace the current single-family and multifamily low-density land-use designations.

Low scale includes single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes, cottage housing and townhouses in some circumstances. Mid-scale includes low-scale structures, plus small multifamily units three stories in height as the baseline.

“Maximum building scale should be relative to the neighborhood scale around it (so scale could vary by neighborhoods),” according to the report. “Larger scale should be allowed near centers/corridors/transit, smaller scale near low-scale areas.”

“Four stories should be allowed only under the following circumstances: In areas near center/corridor/transit; and/or as a bonus for reuse, affordability, green features, other policy goals.”

Near low-scale areas, buildings should match height limits, including View Sensitive Districts, according to the report.

Early in the project, the commission decided the focus was going to be on Tacoma’s predominantly single-family neighborhoods, rather than the whole city.

“Right now our centers are areas where the rules support dense housing, tall housing, apartment buildings and things like that,” said Elliott Barnett, senior planner for the City of Tacoma, in an interview with The News Tribune on Thursday.

“But in the rest of the city, our rules mostly support single-family detached. And there’s a little bit of space there for low scale multifamily. So this project zoomed in on those predominantly single-family neighborhoods.”

Using those parameters, the city now is at 90 percent single family and 10 percent multifamily low density. The final recommendation, culled from two hybrids of the original proposals (Evolve and Transform), recommends approximately 62 percent low-scale and 38 percent mid-scale.

A view of the land use scenario map is online at https://bit.ly/3hHWVUE.

“On the map, you can actually click on all the different scenarios we looked at, which is interesting to see how the ideas were refined over time,” Barnett said.

The project generated hundreds of public comments before Barnett’s presentation to the commission in April on suggested recommendations in response to the feedback.

While public outreach showed support for the project, the feedback also showed a fair number of opponents fearing high-rises next to single-family homes or tear-downs in residential neighborhoods.

That resulted in planning staff refining the proposal to make clear where more dense development will be in areas with supportive infrastructure, services and transit.

Part of the map refinements also aimed to distribute the range of housing options in a more equal manner across the city, so that no one neighborhood became all mid-scale or low-scale.

The recommended housing growth scenario designates mid-scale in walkable, urban locations, defined as follows:

▪ Two blocks from the two regional growth centers (Downtown and the Tacoma Mall Neighborhood), and from Tacoma’s highest capacity transit lines (Pierce Transit 1 and 2 along Pacific Avenue, Sixth Avenue and South 19th Street).

▪ One block from other centers, corridors and transit routes.

The basic outline in the commission’s findings of fact and recommendations report includes the following:

▪ Support continued growth and promote affordability in designated centers and along corridors.

▪ Allow diverse (Missing Middle) housing types, such as duplexes, triplexes, cottage housing and small multifamily, in most currently single-family neighborhoods.

▪ Allow medium-scale multifamily in areas near centers, corridors and transit.

▪ Ensure new housing is well designed and complements the scale of the neighborhood.

▪ Expand and strengthen Tacoma’s affordability and anti-displacement policies and programs.

▪ Guide housing growth to support multiple community goals and avoid unintended consequences.

According to the report: “Proposed Infill design principles call for new housing to complement neighborhood scale and patterns, and provide transitions from higher-scale to lower-scale areas.”

The commission sought to address demolition concerns that were raised in feedback.

From the report: “Proposals include actions to reduce demolitions of viable structures, to ensure that housing growth is supported by infrastructure and services, and support steps to assist people of color and others facing economic barriers to access housing and build family wealth.”

The commission also recommends some code changes sooner rather than later:

▪ Updating the Accessory Dwelling Unit code to remove barriers and simplify permitting.

▪ Establish a regulatory affordable housing bonus option for religious institutions and nonprofit affordable housing providers.

▪ Reduce parking requirements for senior housing developments.

▪ Streamline the approval process for platting.

▪ Expand the City’s “permit pathway” to promote projects that provide significant affordable housing.

One of the areas of disagreement among commissioners was whether to allow mid-scale development around transit lines that are not also a designated center or a corridor, a point that might come up for debate with the council.

WHAT’S NEXT

The next meeting on Home in Tacoma will be a City Council study session June 8. At that meeting, staff will give an overview of the recommendations and receive guidance from council members about the review process and next public hearing date, following a similar process that was used in Phase 1.

More public information sessions are being planned with dates to be determined at the council session.

Council could take action on the Phase 1 recommendations in June or July, which then would launch Phase 2.

While Phase 1 essentially focused on the city’s vision for growth, housing types, scale and general location, zoning and standards will not change until after the next round of public engagement, policy and environmental review.

Barnett noted at Wednesday’s meeting: “Phase 2 is going to actually look at our zoning districts, and we may create several zoning districts that fit within low- and several that fit within mid-scale. We also could do phased zoning changes within these areas, so even if an area is designated for mid-scale, there are several, several more decisions to be made about how these play out, and even the phasing of how that would work.”

According to the original timeline, the project was to be completed by the end of the year, but the planning commission in its report recommended more time for Phase 2, extending into next year.

“The City Council should extend the current timeline (past December 2021) for completion of Phase 2, yet should still move forward expeditiously to match the urgency of housing needs,” the report said.

Home in Tacoma project final updates and documents will be posted at www.cityoftacoma.org/homeintacoma.

The draft versions for now are posted with the most recent commission meeting documents at https://bit.ly/3bLQcFv.

This story was originally published on The News Tribune.