Overlooking downtown Tacoma and Mt. Rainier to the east, and spread below the St. Joseph’s campus along the Upper Tacoma District, the looming warehouse buildings and empty lots of the city’s historic “Brewery District” stand in a collectively ramshackle crowd that is now looking more and more like the next best bet for downtown development.
So much so, in fact, that the City recently released a Request For Proposals to developers who want to take a crack at carving out an upgrade plane for the neighborhood.
“There are a whole lot of decisions to be made about what it’s going to be,” said Jack McQuade, owner of The Swiss restaurant and pub, which sits at the corner of Jefferson Avenue at the northeast end of the district. “A lot of exciting things are going to happen here, and we’re just hoping that developers come into the process and do some great things with it.”
That the neighborhood is part of “old Tacoma” is a major factor, as many of the buildings are of both historic significance and design interest. The district nickname, in fact, stems from the former Pacific Brewing & Malting operation there, which was shut down for good during Prohibition. But is now receiving its own regeneration later this year near the Theater District on the north side of town. Other structures are already listed on the Tacoma Historic Register, and part of the area is protected under Conservation District status.
To tackle the daunting task of figuring out just which direction to take with the mishmash of tumbling brick edifices, abandoned rail lines and overgrown plots, in 2008 the City and community stakeholders came up with a Brewery District Development Concept Study. One key point is transit: The area could be a convenient link between the hospital campus, University of Washington Tacoma, Union Station and the Museum District, and the Tacoma Dome area.
Already the City plans to make 21st Street a main link to I-5, with the new Holiday Inn Express as a main feature currently being built next to it.
“Coming up the hill, with that brand new hotel being developed, it’s going to be great for the city,” McQuade said.
However, business owners within and nearby the Brewery District said that more traffic there is one of their main concerns because it highlights the main downtown dilemma: parking.
“They definitely need to give people more places to park, because the situation is terrible,” said Alyssa Hanson, a server at The Rock restaurant. “It’s completely killing everybody’s business. Right now, nobody wants to come down here because i’s too much trouble.”
Nearby, at Great Northwest Popcorn, co-owner Kathy Timmerman agreed that both parking and transit are major challenges for bringing new types of businesses small and large into the neighborhood.
“It’s mind-boggling for anyone who wants to start a business,” she said. “They’ll look at the demographics of it and ask, ‘How is my customer going to get here? How can I get them to me so they can keep coming back?’ And they can’t.”
As for the types of businesses and activities those already in the Brewery District would like to see come into the area, responses were across the board. But the main sentiment was that the District simply needs more businesses of any kind.
Liz Hogan, a supervisor at The Rock, said that some theaters or theater pubs would add flavor to the mix.
“Theater pubs are huge everywhere; in fact, that’s what we do every time we go to Portland,” she said. “And Portland’s brewery district is huge. They could model off of that and it would make a huge difference.”
Another main challenge for the Brewery District, business owners said, is that the area is often lumped in with the UW Tacoma or Hilltop/St. Joe’s neighborhoods. Suggestions to bring in more focused crowds included street fairs and markets.
Whatever the outcome for the development plan, though, due to property tax structures some of the sale money will go back into City coffers to fund public services.
“The development council has been talking about this for years, so I’m just happy the city is finally getting an action plan going,” McQuade said. “Because once you build one, others will follow.”