Tacoma Urbanist

Apr. 9, 2008 at 12:02am

Will Tacoma Grant THA Development Authority Powers?

Some concerning twists and turns are occurring between the City Council and the Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) and the proposed "development authority" powers being considered being bestowed upon THA.



As I posted last week, the city intended to permit the THA to buy the Rhodes Building on Broadway, the former UPS Law School.  I posed the question whether this act would permit the THA to turn the Rhodes Building into all low income housing if it choose.

Now, it looks as if the proposed grant of power to THA may be far beyond what was originally intended which could make the Tacoma Housing Authority a Development Authority like the Foss Waterway Development Authority

From the TNT:

The Tacoma Housing Authority wants the powers of a public development authority, but it doesn't actually want to become one.

...
But Councilman Jake Fey wanted some more detail about exactly which powers the city would be conferring upon the housing authority. For example, he asked if it could form a police or fire department. The answer to both of those questions was "no," said Assistant City Attorney Steve Gross.
UPDATE: City Manager Eric Anderson put the brakes on the plan to this afternoon, telling council members during Tuesday's study session that he wants to look at another option where the city would partner with the housing authority without actually giving it more power.

Extending additional power would be a "dramatic change in the structure of the Tacoma Housing Authority," Anderson said.

"You are essentially creating a city-wide development authority," Anderson said, adding that may not be a bad thing but he wants councils members to be fully aware of what they're doing.

...

Councilman Jake Fey said this is why he asked for a list of all the powers that would be given to the housing authority.


Commentary

One needs to be very careful about creating a new development authority in the city with a perpetual life and a slate of new powers. Development authorities are run by unelected board members and are often seem as unanswerable to citizens.

There are two current development authorities: Foss Waterway Development Authority, and the Tacoma Community Redevelopment Authority.  However, they have very limited scope of power.  City Manager was concerned that the THA would be a city wide development authority.

Many thought Sound Transit was a benign entity at creation but some Tacomans have considered them a threat when they sought to force through a rail line in the Dome District.  Jane Jacobs fought many powerful unelected development authorities in her life including those run by Robert Moses.  No doubt, all development authorities are started with good intentions.

Certainly it makes no sense to confer such powers if the transfer or use of the Rhodes Building can be accomplished though a partnership with the city. 

At any rate, whether the THA should be be granted such a litany of powers is a large public policy issue and needs to be studied at length before seriously considered.

Some outstanding questions are:


1) What additional powers would be granted to such an authority?  What entity would lose their voice or authority with such a power transfer? Will they be able to adversely condemn land?

2) What advantages and disadvantages to transferring power to such an entity would there be rather than the current system?

3) What Washington cities, if any, have granted housing authorities such power?  What benefits and problems have there been?

4) What checks and balances and oversight on the THA currently in place would be removed?

5) How would Tacoma's neighborhoods be effected by such a citywide grant of power?  Have the neighborhoods had a chance to review the proposal?

Rhodes Building

There is a very high expectation that the Rhodes Building will remain retail and commercial space.  Any ordinance passed by the city allowing THA to buy the building should make sure that this use continues.

I don't think that anyone is going to object to the THA building "workforce housing" above the parking garage as THA Director Mirra has suggest, so there should not be any conflict in including this provision.

Downtown Tacoma has already lost the Woolworth's Building through a loophole in city code and now it is a massive lifeless building in the middle of downtown on Broadway. 

Losing the adjacent Rhodes Building to a non-commercial use as well would create a dead zone on Broadway, one of the few functioning retail areas in downtown.

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