Tacoma Urbanist

Aug. 4, 2008 at 12:01am

Perplexing UWT Statement: 5 Stories Max for Campus?

The News Tribune posted a good article on UWT's efffort in Tacoma to expand at the rate needed to keep up with the desires of the legislature.

In the middle of the interview UWT Chancellor Patricia Spakes states:

“Our architects tell us five stories are really about the maximum if you want to maintain community,”

One has to wonder what architect, if any, could possibly make such a statement?

The statement is certainly contrary to successful residential halls which have been built at other Washington Universities which have great communities:

Mathes Residence Hall at WWU - 9 stories

Picture courtesy of Western Residence.

At Western Washington University, Mathes Resident Hall is NINE stories high and they consider it a great little community:

If you are a current Mathes resident, then take a look around, we hope that this site can help you keep connected to what is going on. If you are just checking out Mathes hall for the first time, I hope this website can help you to discover a little about our community. Below is a little info about our hall.

Having spent a year there, no one I knew ever thought the building destroyed the "community" of campus or of the residents inside.  These residential halls have always been popular with students.

Western site states:

With creative, involved, and welcoming residents; an energetic and friendly staff; and a beautiful building in a convenient location - Mathes is a great community to live.

Similarly, Buchanan Towers is eight stories and the adjacent Nash Residence Hall is nine stories and it just does not seem all that tall.

Nash Residence Hall at WWU - 9 Stories

Picture courtesy of Western Residence.

UW Seattle Residences Even Taller

At UW Seattle, numerous tall residential halls are higher than 5 stories.  McMahaon Hall has towers which are 11 stories tall.  Terry Hall is 11 stories and Lander is 7 stories.


UWT is limited in their footprint compared to other Washington Universities.  This means that UWT is going to have to be more efficient in their use of land on campus, not less.  If UWT does not build anything taller than 5 stories, it is going to be a unnecessarily sprawling campus farther up the hill than it needs to be.

Keeping the buildings ultra low spreads the campus out makes the use of cars more frequent just to cross campus and makes the outskirts of campus more isolated.  Is UWT still hanging on to its original plan as a "commuter campus"?

There would be far less "growing pains" if the land was used more efficiently.  Let's hope UWT does so.

Final Note: UW Seattle recently purchased the 22 story Safeco Tower.

UW President Mark Emmert spoke at the event and entertained the idea of opening the top (22nd) floor to students. The UW Tower is the tallest building in the University District, providing a view of the entire campus, the Seattle skyline and a panoramic display of the surrounding mountains.

The building’s cafeteria may be opened to students, giving them another option for food off campus, said John Seidelmann, the facilities planner for the tower.

If UW Seattle can have a 22 story building in the University District, UWT can certainly handle a 10 story residential halls.

Does UWT need a second opinion as to what height of the buildings should be in an "urban campus" rather than a suburban one?

comments [22]  |  posted under Tacoma


by fredo on 8/4/2008 @ 8:29am
When I saw the 5 story limitation for UWT dorms in the Tribune the other day it aroused the same curiosity for me. It seems to defy the public interest in increasing density in urban areas. The only explanation I can think of is that the UWT planners don't want the remodeled warehouse buildings to be visually overwhelmed by new construction. Yes, the height limitation should be looked at more closely.

by michael g. on 8/4/2008 @ 9:40am
I tend to disagree ... I think the high rise dorms at UW and WWU compare unfavorably with smaller dorms on those campuses, as well as at other campuses I've visited. Given that UWT will remain smaller than those schools for quite a while, there's no need to build high -- just build something!

by izenmania on 8/4/2008 @ 9:44am
It depends upon the goal... If you want everyone in a building to know everyone else, then obviously you need a smaller building. But just like any community it's quite possible to treat it as smaller "neighborhoods". At PLU, yes, you'd see the most full-dorm community someplace like Hinderlie (three and a half smallish floors). If two people lived in Hinderlie they probably knew each other. Whereas in Tingelstad (a 10 floor building) you didn't have that. But that didn't mean there was less community... there was simply more than one community in the building.

by amocat on 8/4/2008 @ 9:46am
UW Seattle's 22 story building is not within the campus footprint- it's in the middle of the University District and is only used for offices.

UWT's conclusion is based on sound reasoning and studies that show that more than 5 stories removes your connection with what is going on at ground level. While they may have to compromise in certain areas, 5 stories is a nice height to strive for. Also, it would look a little weird in that area to have 10 story buildings all over the place when the average height for buildings is 3 or 4 stories.

Lay off UWT a little bit. They are the best thing to come to Tacoma and they know what is best for their students. Many, many experts have weighed in- they have a terrific urban studies program for goodness sakes! Shorter buildings does not suddenly make it a "suburban campus". UWT's growing pains come from too little funding by the legislature and too many demands from Seattle. The last thing they need is citizens telling them how to best use their space.

by joel413 on 8/4/2008 @ 10:15am
I agree with Izenmania, Living in Tinglestad was not a break of community, They had broken it into separate "Residence Halls" (Don't use the word "Dorm" at PLU, it gives the hint of dormancy -- sorry former Lute Orientation Leader talking) And even some intra-hall competition.

Also the "UW Tower" (soon to be my new office space) is a secured building, but saying it is not within the footprint of the seattle campus is a bit misleading. If you shade all the area that UW owns and operates in the U District, it's pretty much on the Northwest edge of campus. The few blocks between the Tower and campus are insignificant, with "The Ave", bookstore and UWAA between the tower and campus, also there are plans (although very Imagine Tacoma-ish) in the works to "boulevard" 43rd street between the Law School and the Tower. to make it more pedestrian friendly as well as tie the tower into the campus.

by izenmania on 8/4/2008 @ 10:24am
I don't know what the architectural feasibility of this is, but would it be possible for them to build five-story buildings that are designed with the possibility of vertical expansion in mind?

I don't think anybody is burning UWT... we all want to see it flourish, because that can be a real key to the rest of the area. I'm really excited to see on-campus housing go in... it's the start of having people actually staying in that neighborhood outside of class time, rather than dashing off back to wherever they actually live.

The last thing they need is citizens telling them how to best use their space.

I must disagree with that. It's up to them whether they listen or not, but I think it's perfectly reasonable for the community to weigh in with opinions. We know we're not experts, but community input can be valuable. I don't think anyone who is expressing ideas here is going to go to the legislature and say "we want you to block funding until they make these building taller, dangit!"

by Erik on 8/4/2008 @ 11:48am
When I saw the 5 story limitation for UWT dorms in the Tribune the other day it aroused the same curiosity for me. It seems to defy the public interest in increasing density in urban areas.

Yes, its completely contrary to well established successful practices University development design. Even spread out campuses have far higher buildings.

The need for UWT to build more densely is greater than other universities, not less as their footprint is going to be much smaller.

The quote is so far off, it may have been mis-statement.

A 5 story limitation would make UWT attempt to building a suburban campus in the middle of the downtown footprint.

Hence, much of their "growing pains" reported in the article are self imposed if they really are considering trying to build the campus out with such low level buildings.

It's up to them whether they listen or not, but I think it's perfectly reasonable for the community to weigh in with opinions.

True. UWT even invites comments on their future development here:


by jcbetty on 8/4/2008 @ 12:17pm
I don't think UWT will ever have the student load that UW, PLU, or UPS have, therefore I doubt they'd need the amount of residence hall-space that those other schools have.

Essentially, remember, UWT is an extension school. As such, it reaches areas outside the regular University area (Seattle) allowing students to live at home and commute to school. Now that they've become a four-year school, they probably see the need to expand to include more traditional U offerings, like housing. Even still, class sizes are small, and class offerings more limited, than at traditional Universities--something to be considered.

But even when I attended UWT, and even at the start of the Freshmen coming on board, there didn't really seem to be a lot of students who needed --or wanted-- to live on-campus. Younger students chose UWT based on proximity to mom and dad, and older, transfer students... well, we're not so much dorm dwellers by the time we have mates, dogs, houses, and kids.

I think the UW planner-types, for UWT, UW, and UWBothell, etc, are pretty savvy to the needs of their campuses, and in the case of UWT, savvy and sensitive to the spirit of the city they inhabit. I give 'em kudos for the 5 story limitation...

by amocat on 8/4/2008 @ 12:29pm
_The quote is so far off, it may have been mis-statement._

Erik B. it was not a mis-statement and you know it. Stop being sensational. That doesn't help anybody have a rational discussion.

by Erik on 8/4/2008 @ 1:32pm
I don't think UWT will ever have the student load that UW, PLU, or UPS have, therefore I doubt they'd need the amount of residence hall-space that those other schools have.

Your right, they will never have the enrollment of UW. However, it all comes down to the number of people per acre.

Here is some of the info that the Tribune printed on the sizes of other campuses. UWT has a relatively small campus.


The University of Washington Tacoma campus sits on fewer acres than other colleges both bigger and smaller.

Right now, they are facing off with the basic rules of geometry. If they are going to have significant residential halls as students appear to want, they are going to either massively sprawl out the campus or build taller buildings.


UW Tacoma Tacoma 10,000

(projected) 46 acres

UW Seattle Seattle 40,218 643 acres

University of Puget Sound Tacoma 2,700 97 acres

Pacific Lutheran University Parkland 3,600 126 acres

Northeastern University Boston 20,500 67 acres

Columbia University New York 25,500 299 acres

Harvard University Cambridge, Mass. 19,000 380 acres


by jcbetty on 8/4/2008 @ 1:38pm
...and yet, again, the campus size/density issue is misleading, when you consider it's a *branch campus.* These are typically not designed for residence, unlike the other universities listed. Consider, the Central, Western, and Evergreen State College Branches locally. Originally, UWT was supposed to be a larger one of those. And, really, for most intents and purposes, it is.

by izenmania on 8/4/2008 @ 1:57pm
That's exactly the problem, though, jcb. The campus is not designed for a high residential component, because it started out as just a satellite school, designed for transfer students, adult students, etc. But it looks like their intent is to lean toward being a more conventional school. And if they do continue to move in that direction, their small footprint will become an issue.

by jcbetty on 8/4/2008 @ 2:38pm
and I'm just sayin', that I don't think their intent is to ever expand their admissions beyond what they can handle, residential capacity-wise. I tend to like to think the planners of such matters would have thought the issues through, cuz I'm trusting like that...

by amocat on 8/4/2008 @ 2:45pm
the planners at UWT know what they are doing and are reformulating their plan. While they may build enough housing for freshman, the campus is an URBAN setting. Therefor, post freshman year, alot of people either will or will be expected to live off campus. Not too crazy when you think of UWT's setting...

by izenmania on 8/4/2008 @ 3:19pm
Especially given the huge rash of condo developments that have gone relatively unfilled in the area. It would be interesting to see them do more of what they've done with Court 17... setting up deals with the condo/apartment owners to establish de-facto student housing in the existing market.

by fredo on 8/4/2008 @ 7:33pm
Well the Condos probably wouldn't have cool co-ed showers or all night bong parties so the dorms would probably be better.

by Crenshaw Sepulveda on 8/4/2008 @ 8:30pm
5 stories seems to be high enough for me. Just how much density are we expecting the UWT to be responsible for. The private sector is failing so we need the UWT to pick up the slack? I'd rather the UWT build a 5 story building and have it filled to capacity instead of going 9 stories and have it only half full. I think the UWT knows what they are doing and they can't be expected to do everything for downtown, they've done their share already. I know the big time developers are counting on the UWT to be the engine that drives their sales but it is time for the big time developers to do something else like build modestly priced housing. $800 a month for a 400 sq ft studio is not modestly priced, it is an outrage.

by izenmania on 8/7/2008 @ 2:08pm
Callahan makes a good point about UWT expansion:


by Erik on 8/7/2008 @ 2:14pm
Callahan makes a good point about UWT expansion:

Yes. He writes:

I guess that is technically true. But Seattle U. has 7,500 students on 48 acres and could accommodate more if it wished to grow larger. Portland State has 25,000 students on 49 acres. They both work pretty well, and UWT works pretty well too.

I wonder how high the buildings are at Seattle University. I suspect they exceed 5 stories.

Then he points out the silliness of limiting buildings to 5 stories:

If UWT has to build higher to absorb the students and staff it is assigned and still have some open space, then build higher. That’s OK. It’s a city.

by Rue on 8/7/2008 @ 9:35pm
What I haven't seen here is the fact that once you go beyond 5 stories you have to use different more expensive building techniques and materials. Maybe UWT students don't pencil out for the more expensive buildings.

Also, what happend to all the talk about turning the Dome District into dorm central? Seeing how with all the trains and Dome chaos only students would want to live there anyway? It is on the LINK.

by andrew.austin on 8/13/2008 @ 4:40pm
even suburban PLU has a 9 story dorm. UWT should look to urban Seattle U as a model for this stuff. they are a small school with only one tower residence hall, I think 20 stories or so, and then one 9 story apartment building.

by Erik on 8/14/2008 @ 11:15am
even suburban PLU has a 9 story dorm. UWT should look to urban Seattle U as a model for this stuff. they are a small school with only one tower residence hall, I think 20 stories or so, and then one 9 story apartment building.

I agree that Seattle University is the closest example for UWT to look at in Washington.

Today's article in the Index quoting Spakes again looks to encompass a more appropriate urban design:

Spakes said the university has hosted approximately 40 community meetings, and hired Mithun and Associates to design two alternative master plans to show how the campus might grow. Recently, the university has leaned toward one master plan in particular, which concentrates student housing near South 21st Street and Market Street and places greenspace in the heart of the campus.

The university is also looking at the possibility of private residential development along Tacoma Avenue. The buildings could rise between 10 and 20 stories.


UWT is downtown after all.

With that said, I can't attribute the different statement completely to my blog post though.