If you’ve walked down Pacific Avenue along the University of Washington Tacoma campus, you may have noticed something.
It seems busier. Livelier. There are people shopping and eating and walking about.
It’s not just your eyes, and it’s not just a coincidence. For the first time this summer, UWT’s real estate along Pacific Avenue will be completely — as in 100 percent — full. It’s the result of a strategic plan 18 months in the making that involved bringing together an eclectic mix of dining and retail options.
Walking along the strip, UWT Real Estate Manager Ben Mauk points out the eclectic mix of dining and retail options. In addition to chains like Starbucks, Jimmy Johns and Subway, there’s the UW Bookstore, Tinkertopia, a crepe store called Savor, Pho Than Brothers, the Renaissance Café, Granola’s yogurt shop, Indochine Asian dining lounge, Urbanxchange, 253 Collective, skate culture shop Bleach, South Sound Running, couture shop Do the Impossible and more.
And they’re about to get some new neighbors. Opening up this summer are Cuterness, a children’s boutique; Satori, a women’s clothing and accessories store; and London’s on the Ave, a hair salon which also has a location on the Foss Waterway.
Topping it all off, according to Mauk, is Elemental Pizza.
“This place will be open in September,” he said. “It’s gonna be gangbusters. It’s really cool.”
Elemental Pizza — which has found success in Seattle’s University Village and is owned by the same people who operate Blue C Sushi and Boom Noodle — has the added pressure of being located directly across from the Tacoma Art Museum and the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center.
“You needed something here that was going to be highly visible and accessible to a lot of people,” Mauk said. “When the owners talk about their design and the experience they want, (they say) you want somewhere where you can take your kids, but Mom and Dad will still kind of feel like they’re going out on a date.”
He continued, “It’s also an important location just for campus. It’s a significant gateway. We needed to have something here that was really interesting.”
The journey to filling out the real estate has been a process, Mauk said.
“How do you get that right mix of businesses that is interesting and intriguing and something that people will want?” he asked. “(Make them say), ‘OK, I’m going to down to Pac Ave. and spend a couple hours to hang out?’”
The process began with an analysis by consulting firm Downtown Works, which has been responsible for similar rejuvenations in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, Nashville, Austin and Philadelphia. They came to Tacoma, identified the people who would come to downtown Tacoma, figured out their preferences and how they spend their money, and made suggestions as to what kind of shopping experience they would want.
“Once you know that,” Mauk said, “you say ‘OK, here’s the kind of stores I want to find.’ You go out and do your research and you find someone like Elemental, who fits that image and who’s doing a great job.”
Mauk said the new strategic plan didn’t involve UWT purposefully kicking out any tenants. Rather, it’s been a natural process. Renaissance Café switched owners, Taco Del Mar closed down, another pair of business owners moved back to Mexico and another restaurant simply failed.
When it came time to place a new business, Mauk said he had to be careful in his decision making.
“There were actually a lot of people we had to say no to,” he said. “There were folks who came up to us and wanted to do something, and we’re like, ‘You know, it just doesn’t fit within the total strategy we have for the streetfront.’”
“We would get a lot of phone calls or emails from people that would say ‘I want to open a deli, I want to open a teriyaki shop,’ but you’ve got to be really careful about those decisions. If you make a bunch of short term decisions, sure, maybe you’re all leased up, but the overall desirability goes down.”
The real estate program has many benefits for the University of Washington Tacoma. Having a lively downtown literally right outside of class makes the recruiting process infinitely easier. And with no cafeteria on campus, the dining options along Pacific Avenue presents a valuable resource for students.
Ultimately, though, one of the greatest benefits is the money. By leasing out to successful tenants, UWT has been able to create a steady source of funding that university leaders can then dedicate toward important or pressing objectives. When the bottom fell out in the Tioga building, for example, UWT was able to issue debt and pay it off with the real estate funding.
“The campus can kind of do whatever it wants with it,” Mauk said. “If there’s a need that needs to be filled, and the leadership think it’s important enough, they can use that money. But the program is a self supporting enterprise and it has to stand on it’s own two feet, so we have to make sure we’re maintaining our properties and we need to make sure we’re not spending it all.”
Mauk’s job isn’t over, though, just because all of the real estate has been filled up. It’s a constant cycle, he said, and there will be old tenants moving out and new tenants moving in.
He also said there will be more focus placed on the sidewalk experience.
“A year or so ago, the only people that had anything out on the street was Starbucks. The bookstore didn’t have anything. Savor didn’t have anything. One of the things we work hard on with our tenants is making sure they’re bringing the experience out into the road,” he said.
Mauk points at the bookstore, “Just three tables with two umbrellas and all of a sudden people are milling about.”
He points the other direction, at the Purple Peacock. “She’s got two little stone Fu Dogs out there. When she put them out there, her sales almost immediately jumped.”
He points back the other way, at the Renaissance Café, where a couple of chairs sit outside.
“It used to be that that store didn’t have anything out front and you would walk right by it.”
Noting the wide sidewalks, Mauk noted further intentions to expand the experience, working with businesses to add canopies for the rainy days, paint walls to add more character and more visibly divide the businesses, and make sure everyone has eye-catching signage. He also mentioned maybe work ing with the businesses and museums across the street to host events, or do something creative, like the putt-putt golf courses designed by local artsists during the U.S. Open.
As for the next big step?
“I would say the next thing after (the sidewalk experience) is being able to brand and market this area,” Mauk said. “Not just this stretch of retail, but this entire area stretching to the waterfront, as the place to go.”