Tacoma Urbanist

Sep. 1, 2009 at 12:01am

UWT Seeking to Thwart Retail Development on Pacific Avenue in Renovated Joy Building


The Tacoma branch of the University of Washington (UWT), with the assistance of many Tacoma residents, has secured funding to renovate the Joy Building in downtown Tacoma from the Legislature in the amount of $15,000,000.

The original renovation design, which enabled UWT to secure funding promised that:

UWT officials plan to renovate the building to meet educational and faculty needs, and provide retail on the first floor which fronts Pacific Avenue.

(Drawing courtesy of the Tacoma Daily Index)

The building was to house classrooms and faculty offices with retail on the first floor of the building.

Because UWT fronts Pacific Avenue, which is the primary "main street" in downtown Tacoma, it is critical that the University follow through with its commitment to place retail on the first floor for the success of downtown.  Placing offices or classrooms on the first floor of the Joy Building would waste much of the potential of the building and surrounding area.

Flashback: Tacoma residents and nearby businesses had to push to make sure UWT placed retail on the first floor of the recently completed William W. Philip Hall.

UWT's Reversal On Retail Placement on Pacific Avenue

Having now secured the funds from the state, and contrary to the wishes of the Tacoma Landmark Commission, UWT is now seeking to eliminate some of the retail space in the Joy Building fronting Pacific Avenue as reported by the Puget Sound Business Journal (8/28/2009):

University of Washington Tacoma at odds about Joy retail

Tacoma's historic preservation leaders are at odds with the University of Washington Tacoma over the university's plans to reduce retail space in favor of more faculty offices as it prepares to renovate the historic Russell T. Joy Building on Pacific Avenue in the heart of downtown.

The Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission already has signed off on design plans for the renovation project. But it wants to see more retail businesses spring up along Pacific Avenue to promote economic development and to pump up foot traffic. So it has directed the city's historic preservation officer, Reuben McKnight, to write a letter outlining its concerns to both city and university officials.

Thus, UWT is seeking to not only renovate the Joy Building poorly, but is trying to thwart the will of the  Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Let's hope that the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the City of Tacoma require and/or UWT to restore the Joy Building properly so that this area of downtown can have street level vibrancy.

The Irony

Ironically, UWT has an urban studies program which it touts on its web site:

A concern for social justice and the quality of life in cities are cornerstones of UWT's Urban Studies program.

The main campus in Seattle has a well known School of Architecture. 

Yet, while apparently teaching students about urban design principles, UWT seeks to thwart even the most elementary modern urban design principle which would place retail on the first floor of their buildings in the middle of a commercial district.

UWT knows or should know better and can do better as they did when they finally agreed to place retail on the first floor of the recently completed William W. Philip Hall. 

Action Steps For Tacomans

Tacomans should insist that UWT comply with the original plans to renovate the Joy Building with retail on the first floor of the building.  The success of the south part of downtown is critical for every resident of Tacoma.

The UWT is a public entity and is receiving public taxpayer funds for their project and should be expected to renovate the Joy Building correctly rather than in a short sighted manner which will be harmful to the long terms prospects of downtown Tacoma.

Here are some steps to allow your voice to be heard to make a difference:

1) Email your Tacoma City Council Members and let them know of your concern

2) Email Mike Wark, a spokesman for UWT, mentioned in the article

3) Email Patricia Spakes, Chancellor of UWT 

4) Email Landmark Preservation Commission

comments [34]  |  posted under Tacoma


by Erik on 9/1/2009 @ 1:12am
Another picture of the current condition from the Tacoma Daily Index:

by KevinFreitas on 9/1/2009 @ 6:51am
Thanks for sharing Erik. It would be a crime to simply convert this current dead zone into yet another dead zone after spending that much money. UWT has been a great example of how efforts like this can help create a vibrant urban core and it would be a shame for them to turn back on those ideals.

Don't forget as well that any comments that come in here can be submitted in person or digitally to any councilmember and become part of the public record on this topic. So comment away and if we should periodically send this along to them so they know how Tacoma feels.

by Joel 413 on 9/1/2009 @ 8:13am
While I was surprised to see this in the news this morning, I'm not all that surprised, really. UWT put in the retail on teh first floor of Philip Hall and it sits unoccupied. So why should they have to add half a dozen more empty storefronts that sit dormant and unused when they could be putting the space to work for their primary function: Education?

Those classrooms would be educating people to go out into the world and become entrepreneurs that start their own business and come back to fill in all the other empty retail spaces along Pacific Ave. If well educated, maybe their stores could stay open more than 6 months.

Sorry guys, it's a catch-22. If you're crazy you can stop flying suicide missions, but if you say you're crazy you obviously aren't, so you keep flying, which is crazy.

So if you stop building storefronts you educate more people who won't have any storefronts to work in ;)

by NineInchNachos on 9/1/2009 @ 8:16am
I'd settle for lots of windows that you could see students working hard through.

by NEAL on 9/1/2009 @ 8:21am
Doesn't UW have a business school? Wouldn't that be prime space to have hands-on opportunities?

by Joel 413 on 9/1/2009 @ 8:23am
I should qualify my previous statement. The Retail space in Philip Hall is 50% Occupied. MetaBooks is there.

The UW does not have a School of Architecture or Business School... as a matter of fact both units prefer that they be referred to by their proper names, respectively: The College of Built Environments and The Foster School of Business

by Erik on 9/1/2009 @ 9:34am
UWT put in the retail on the first floor of Philip Hall and it sits unoccupied.

Yes, I believe there is a bookstore there now Joel. Most of the retail spaces on Pacific Avenue are filled in this area of downtown and on both sides of the Joy Building.

The UW does not have a School of Architecture or Business School... as a matter of fact both units prefer that they be referred to by their proper names, respectively: The College of Built Environments and The Foster School of Business

Yes. Because they are purportedly trying to focus on the effect of built environments on humans. They even have a lab

by fredo on 9/1/2009 @ 9:37am
People constantly bemoan the lack of retailers then on the next discussion board champion the cause of high barriers to retail formation. Folks, you can't have it both ways. Retailing and food service are very risky endeavors. There are really only two factors which the public can use to promote them. Those factors are lowering tax obstacles such as B&O and sales taxes, and lowering minimum wage requirements. People who want thriving retail corridors and high barriers to retail operation are really sort of delusional.

by Nick on 9/1/2009 @ 10:30am
$15M to rennovate that building sure seems like a lot of money. Is it structurally sound? Also, perhaps we aren't seeing the full picture here. I don't think UWT would make this decision lightly and may be responding to other pressures we aren't aware of. As much as I don't like it, there may be another issue at hand that's driving this decision.

Also, the current storefront vacancies can mostly be attributed to the dramatic drop in consumer spending over the past year. With people cutting back on spending at record levels, even the most profitable retailers are finding it hard to stay in business. Unless you are a large chain that has a pile of cash to draw from while waiting out this storm, you're out of luck. This is a temporary/short-term problem that will wane over the coming year.

by Crenshaw Sepulveda on 9/1/2009 @ 10:35am
Count on fredo to bring reducing the minimum wage into this discussion. It could very well be there is quite enough retail along this part of Tacoma for a while. I don't think the UWT is obligated to provide more retail opportunities along Pacific especially if it impacts the educational program. If the best use of the space is education in nature I certainly don't want more retail which may stay empty. UWT has done a lot for Tacoma, they can not do it all. UWT will not save downtown all by itself. I'll count on those that run the UWT to know what is best for their program.

by Nick on 9/1/2009 @ 11:39am

While it may be true that UWT should do what's best for it's core purpose, it also is not exempt from city zoning requirements (not sure that this applies here), the original terms under which it received funds for this project, and our local agencies' authority over how property development is made. The City and LPC are representing the interests of Tacoma at large and provide a couterbalance to UWT's interests.

Because this decision affects more than just UWT, it is important for us as a city to have a role in the process as well.

by Erik on 9/1/2009 @ 9:36pm
UWT has done a lot for Tacoma...

True. However, we can't really allow entities to use that as an excuse for poor urban design.

MultiCare made the same argument when the issue of the steam plant design by Wright Park was being debated. They stated that they did not want to spend more money on a better design as it would take away from their ability to help kids.

Yet, in the end, a much better design was implemented.

We have already gone through this with UWT's William W. Philip Hall which now has a book store.

Finally, Safeway originally stated that a better design just could be physically constructed in Proctor, that it just was not possible. Yet, the new design will be far better than the one originally proposed.

Here, the only money UWT is public funds which means they are obligated to place a well designed building on Pacific Avenue and not create a mini dead zone by putting office space on the first floor.

by Crenshaw Sepulveda on 9/1/2009 @ 10:40pm
Empty retail space is as much a blight as office space on the street level of a building. The UWT is responsible for providing a lot of retail space along Pacific. I suspect if there was a huge demand for more retail they would be more than happy to put it in the plan. I would like to see UWT include retail space in the Joy building but for some reason they don't want to go with it at this point. The UWT has my thanks for what they have done. Maybe some enterprising retailer may make a proposal to the UWT and prelease the space making it a certainty that it will be rented out when the construction is done. The WWPH does have a book store but there is also a space that has been vacant since the building opened.

by Crenshaw Sepulveda on 9/1/2009 @ 10:49pm
The Proctor Safeway may end up gussied up but it will still be a supermarket in a parking lot. Personally I'm happy with it the way it is. Between the Metro Mkt and the Safeway I think they have the grocery business pretty well covered, fancy building aside.

I confess I like the way the steam plant ended up. You have to remember what was torn down to put up the steam plant. I think the steam plant at least does a little justice to what was torn down.

by Erik on 9/2/2009 @ 12:51am
Today, the News Tribune has published my letter to the editor on the issue.


I have learned to my great dismay that the University of Washington Tacoma, having secured $15 million of taxpayer money for renovating the Joy Building in downtown Tacoma, is seeking to significantly reduce the first-floor retail space along Pacific Avenue. Having retail on the first floor of commercial buildings is essential for the success of a business district.

UWT’s shortsighted plan to place faculty offices on the first floor would be destructive and thwart the future vibrancy of the neighborhood.

Ironically, UWT offers an Urban Studies program for students. Yet UWT’s plan for the Joy Building is contrary to the most basic urban design principles. UWT needs to do more than teach students abstract idea about urban design principles; it needs to implement them.

As a UW graduate, downtown business owner and taxpayer, I expect UWT to do the right thing and adopt the recommendations of the Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission and build retail on Pacific Avenue as originally designed.


by Joel 413 on 9/2/2009 @ 7:40am
While not a member of the Office of Planning, I would imagine that in the end, based on prior experience, that a majority of the funds for the Joy Building will be private fund instead of public funds. But I haven't done any research into this, and I know that the Philip building was mostely private funds. The sad fact is that public funding accounts for less than 30% of the UW's budget. The current state funding to the UW is back to levels of the early 90's. The UW has laid off a large portion of it's administrative staff, protecting it's faculty because applications and enrollment is at an all time high. More classrooms are a better option for a school.

by Erik on 9/2/2009 @ 8:21am
While not a member of the Office of Planning, I would imagine that in the end, based on prior experience, that a majority of the funds for the Joy Building will be private fund instead of public funds.

I don't know about William W. Philip Hall.

However, the Tribune reported earlier that 100 percent of the money for the Joy Building renovations is from an allocation from state legislature:

UPDATE:(2:31 p.m.) .... I've learned that there is, indeed, $34 million in the 2009-11 capital budget for the University of Washington Tacoma to keep expanding.


by narndt on 9/2/2009 @ 9:03am
Hmm...faculty offices on the first floor looking out at Pacific? My first thought: nothing spruces up a business district like 200ft of closed blinds during peak business hours.

by Crenshaw Sepulveda on 9/2/2009 @ 12:08pm
Remember this is a university we are talking about. Their primary goal is to educate. I'd like to see some fancy retail shops on the ground level but how much does it do to enhance the educational experience? Do you want fries with that?

by Rith on 9/2/2009 @ 9:57pm
UWT could at least put a student cafe where the retail should go, or an admissions or information office. Something that the general public might also be interested in. I'm sure they have some program that deals with people other than students that could use that space.

by KevinFreitas on 9/2/2009 @ 10:43pm
UWT is an educational institution: check!
UWT chose to locate and invest in an urban/downtown location: check!

So it sounds to me like they've already set their course with their past endeavors in this area: to balance their educational needs with helping infuse some activity and opportunity in downtown Tacoma. Were this not part of their noble mission they would've made a spot for themselves out by the mall. They chose to be an integral part to our vibrant downtown and, as a state institution funded by our tax dollars, we have a right to demand they continue along that path.

And, let's not kid ourselves, the amount of space they've thus far dedicated to storefronts is easily 5% or likely far less of the total space they occupy around here. So it seems a relatively minor inconvenience for them to continue this stewardship of our downtown by helping prevent this stretch of a deadzone along Pacific from staying that way as office or classroom facades. Make the rents reasonable and business, and walking traffic, will come.

by Erik on 9/2/2009 @ 11:57pm
And, let's not kid ourselves, the amount of space they've thus far dedicated to storefronts is easily 5% or likely far less of the total space they occupy around here.

The amount of retail space could be very small relative to the size of the entire building.

Here is the Master Plan Update on April 17, 2008 in which UWT indicates that the Joy Building has 85,000 feet. Yet the Puget Sound Business Journal indicated that

"Those planned offices must now go to the Joy Building, reducing the planned retail space by 30 percent from 8,000 square feet to 2,500 square feet, Wark said."

A tiny portion for retail either way.


Make the rents reasonable and business, and walking traffic, will come.

Yes. Almost all of the retail spaces in this area of downtown Tacoma are occupied and doing well. I am sure the retail spaces in the Joy Building, located between existing businesses will do well.

by Nick on 9/3/2009 @ 9:00am
Perhaps a good compromise would be to structure the first floor to accomodate retail, but allow it to be used for other purposes while the economy recovers. This solves the short term problem of retail being weak over the next couple of years while not preventing the long-term goal of continuous retail along Pacific. How about that?

I mean, I'd rather see faculty working away at their desks than empty store fronts for the next 6 to 12 months.

by Nick on 9/3/2009 @ 9:01am
Also, let's not forget that over the long haul, being a retail landlord as a consequence of locating downtown will only benefit UWT's balance sheet.

by Crenshaw Sepulveda on 9/3/2009 @ 10:54am
Isn't continuous retail what got us into this economic mess to begin with?

by Nick on 9/3/2009 @ 11:28am
I'm pretty sure it was mostly the result of reckless risk-taking by financial institutions, attributed to a lack of transparency and laissez faire style oversight by our regulatory agencies. Couple that with a systemic misallocation of power into a handful of large private organizations, preheat your oven to 450 and cook for 45 minutes, and there you have it! A freshly baked global economic crisis! Quite simple really...

... end strange late-morning humor ...

by tacoma1 on 9/3/2009 @ 11:43am

"Perhaps a good compromise would be to structure the first floor to accomodate retail, but allow it to be used for other purposes while the economy recovers."

That is a good idea. I was thinking along the same line myself. Most retailers are short of cash for now. Why force it, but definitely, no reason to limit our options down the road.

by Erik on 11/29/2009 @ 9:04am

UW, retailers at odds over downtown Tacoma
DOWNTOWN: College needs classrooms, offices; merchants say plan breaks promise over Pacific Avenue storefront usage.

The University of Washington Tacoma and some neighboring business owners disagree over whether the school is betraying its commitment to encourage retail businesses in its storefronts along Pacific Avenue.

The business owners are protesting the universityïż½s plans to use retail space it owns in the Russell T. Joy building on Pacific Avenue for a classroom and possibly for temporary faculty offices until it builds an office building elsewhere on campus.


Too bad UWT Urban Studies students have to see their school make such destructive decisions to the business district. The lessons they are learning is that if you have the power one can do the wrong thing at the expense of the community (business district) around you.

Tacoma community members fought for the funds for the Joy Building to have retail on Tacoma's main street.

by Crenshaw Sepulveda on 11/29/2009 @ 11:58am
The UWT is making destructive decisions to a business district that they are mostly responsible for creating to begin with? Where is the pent up demand to rent these spaces that the UWT wants to use for classes and offices? The UWT already has one vacant store front by the Meta Books, I'm not sure if more vacant store fronts will do us much good. More students, more professors, that is what will be good for business for the time being.

by Erik on 3/16/2010 @ 8:11pm

UWT is going to back to provide retail on Pacific Avenue as originally promised.

Thanks to everyone who worked on the issue:

Thanks for being a good neighbor UWT and for building a better campus!

The University of Washington Tacoma has changed course on the ground-floor design of its newest Pacific Avenue renovation, giving up on a large classroom and instead planning to lease all the street-facing space to retailers.


by BellCaptain on 3/16/2010 @ 8:18pm
Ok -then----whom do we suggest they contact for this #5 Diamond location ?
Fill the space's ----they will come !!

by NineInchNachos on 3/16/2010 @ 8:20pm

by Jesse on 3/16/2010 @ 9:54pm
I'm glad they sided with integrity.

by Erik on 3/17/2010 @ 12:09am
New post: