Dec. 18, 2017
The day started with an air of excitement. The glass doors outside the newly remodeled segment of Tacoma’s historic Freighthouse Square whooshed open, welcoming business and leisure travelers, and local media members.
At approximately 8 a.m., the sleek Amtrak Cascades #501 pulled into the station from Seattle on its inaugural run, bound for Portland on the new Point Defiance Bypass, which would take the train and its passengers through Tacoma, Lakewood, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and DuPont before continuing on its usual path south.
It was a day that many people inside Freighthouse Square had long placed their hopes on for several years; not because they were looking forward to riding the rails, but because their businesses had depended upon it.
For several years, the more than 70 business owners of the 100,000-square-foot green and white building had endured the station’s construction, which impacted their businesses and impeded their customers from finding accessible parking. Reassurances from the building’s manager, Doug Huntington, to “just hang in there a little longer” were the light at the end of the tunnel for most of the business owners. Amtrak would come, and with it would come revenue.
Most South Sound residents know what happened next. As that Amtrak Cascades train rounded a bend at 79 miles per hour (more than twice the speed limit), it careened off the tracks in DuPont, and some of the cars spilled from a trestle onto Interstate 5. The crash killed three passengers and injured 62 more. An additional eight motorists on the highway below also were hurt during the incident. As a result, the new station at Freighthouse Square was shuttered, and the trains rerouted until the track is deemed safe once again.
Later that day, and for many weeks after, news coverage of the incident centered on the loss of life, and speculations as to what may have caused the crash. But Terry Waller, owner of the Olive Branch restaurant at Freighthouse and her fellow business owners were feeling a different kind of pain.
“I (was) begging for attention,” Waller said. “KING 5 came and did a little story, and then later I was reading all the comments (on the story), and some people said, ‘Oh; they’re just trying to get money.’ Because the story should have said that they struggled through the construction, they are still there, please go support them.”
July 10, 2018
Huntington oversees the day-to-day operations of Freighthouse Square, whose occupants include restaurants, an art gallery, on-site caterer, a convenience store, event venue space, office spaces, and retail shops. There’s even a LEGO artist, a blacksmith, two haunted houses, and an escape room on the premises.
As Huntington walked along the worn wooden floorboards of Freighthouse Square more than half a year after the crash of Amtrak Cascades #501, the owners of these businesses all had something to say to him. Many gave him a smile and wave from behind their store counters, calling out a greeting. Others asked him everyday questions about this or that. Others still tried to snag him and unload their grievances, which were many and varied. He grimaced and hung his head apologetically, with a hurried, albeit sincere, “I know, I know.”
In the time since the Amtrak station was shuttered, Huntington said, he’s lost 21 parking stalls to a City of Tacoma sidewalk improvement project. As that project wrapped up, construction on the Sound Transit garage across the street began, blocking off hundreds of parking stalls at a time. Huntington said he’s lost at least one business owner, a barber who had been operating out of Freighthouse Square for four years.
“All because his clientele is 60 and 70 years old, and they aren’t going to walk a block,” he said.
Through all the growing pains, Huntington said, his priority is the building’s entrepreneurs.
“The business owners are the ones that have been hurt,” Huntington said, as he continued his walk down the long corridor of his domain. “Both Brian (Borgelt, the building’s owner) and I care so much about making sure they succeed, and we try to encourage them. But until the (Amtrak trains start stopping here) again, we have to wait and be patient … It’s very frustrating.”
Olive Branch owner Waller is highly rated on Yelp and adored by those who appreciate a good, old-fashioned tea party. “Doug is pushing us and telling us (to hang in there), but there are other cities saying ‘Terry, come here; there’s parking.’ I don’t know what to do,” she said.
Huntington picked up the pace. He was headed toward the south end of the building, where he knew representatives from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and Amtrak would be locked inside the shuttered station, discussing the future of the bypass. He was eager to knock on the doors and find out whether any progress had been made, and whether any date had been set to reopen the line.
Two weeks earlier, Amtrak released a statement regarding the carrier’s implementation of the positive train control (PTC) system. This system allows for better monitoring and controlling of train movements, thereby improving railway safety. According to the statement, implementation of the PTC system is “progressing well.”
However, Huntington doesn’t have much luck with the officials. Nothing has been decided yet.
Information posted on WSDOT’s website provides some hope: “Once testing is complete and PTC is fully active, we are planning for Amtrak Cascades trains to return to the Lakewood/JBLM/DuPont bypass this fall, ahead of the federal deadline. We do not have an exact date for that return yet, but will post it as soon as we do.”
That’s not all that’s on the horizon for Freighthouse Square. Huntington gazed, hands on hips, across the street, at the 27,950-square-foot surplus parcel of land owned by Pierce Transit. He has heard rumors that after years of false starts and negotiations, the proposed transit-oriented mixed-use residential property might finally come to fruition.
“The millennial concept is that they will live (there), and walk across the street and (take the Sounder) up to Seattle (for work) because it is more cost-effective down here,” he said.
In fact, DMG Capital Group was awarded the project and is planning for 115 market-rate apartments over retail and parking. According to the City of Tacoma, Pierce Transit closed on transfer of the property recently, and the permits for the project are very nearly ready to issue. Upon completion, it will be the first project in Tacoma in which every resident will receive an ORCA card as part of their tenancies.
Even further ahead, voter-approved Sound Transit 3 aims to extend light rail service to the Tacoma Dome Station outside Freighthouse Square by 2030, allowing arriving visitors at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to travel to the Dome District in just over half an hour.
Until then, Huntington said, he will continue to be a cheerleader for this building and its people. “I am a true sincere optimist; I believe in the Freighthouse (Square) passionately with all my heart and soul,” he said.