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Genius Loci: Brewery District

Mar 26, 2010

by Kate Howe, Urban Planner for VIA Architecture

In the Pacific Northwest, Tacoma struggles somewhat from its brand as a post-industrial place. But, I and many, many others HEART Tacoma for its deeply layered and intense urban infrastructure; it holds a similarity for rust belt and east coast cities we keep hearing about, like revitalizing Pittsburgh (see the link for a New York Times article), Youngstown and Providence. Because these communities are still scarred by economic loss, they appreciate that without the ability to adapt, experiment and elevate the cultural attributes of their existing place, the free flow of unencumbered capital $ will do just that, keep on flowing right out of town.

While its situation is drastically different from a growing Pacific Northwest, I am particularly impressed by Youngstown OH, which is making a name for itself as one of the most experimental planning cities in the US, with its shrinking city concept. It is led by the country’s youngest mayor (elected at the tender age of 33). Now in his second term, his city is making headlines as one of the best places in the country to start a business.

Tacoma is hard at work at its own structural re-invention. Over the past year, they have adopted a new downtown strategic plan, a new downtown comprehensive plan, and development studies for some of its key neighborhoods.

For the Brewery District, a group of stakeholders, including the Hillside Development Council, the University of Washington (their new campus is just next door), the city, the arts community, business and land owners, recently came together to talk about what they would like to be. There is a lot of optimism surrounding the future of the District; in nearly every meeting, someone would mention wanting to be more like Granville Island, Vancouver. The Brewery District has decided on a Tacoma-driven, south sound, flavor – a diverse and activated place of production.

 Granville Island, Vancouver

“Production” instead of “industry” underlies a progressive diversification of meaning. We are moving away from location-specific industry; and “production” suggests an evolution, signifying technological innovation and adaptation such as the need for robustness, resilience and environmental sustainability.

The actions suggested by the Brewery District groups and documented in a new Study due out soon includes:

  • Adaptive re-use of a former carriage house into a public market/incubator space;
  • The introduction of a gathering place and bike/ped path on a decommissioned BNSF rail line;
  • Potential for an art school, live-work lofts or more activated public use in the Nisqually Power Station (now owned by Tacoma’s most famous glass artist Chihuly); 
  • A new arts complex for a variety of performance managed by the School of the Arts just up the street;
  • Reintroducing the original brick on Holgate Avenue to slow traffic and take back the public realm as a shared space.

These ideas are not brought from the outside, but from those who have lived and worked in Tacoma. To succeed, it will need to be a grassroots driven process, building off these lifetimes of investment and local talent. The Brewery District is already in proximity to some of Tacoma’s best assets, close to the campus, the waterfront, to LRT transit. Its remaining Brick Breweries are aching for a reinvention. I can’t wait to see what will happen next.

This is an early peek at some of the ideas the VIA team produced as part of our exploration:

One Comment

  1. fingers crossed that tacoma can pull it off. Agree with you Kate – I think it’s a really cool place with a lot of great potential..and cool ideas you guys are working on there…