Tacoma Rediviva

David Nicandri, November 2004

Before Seattle could displace Portland, Oregon, as the commercial center of the Pacific Northwest, it had to first vanquish its Puget Sound rival, Tacoma. This was largely accomplished by 1900 as a result of the one-two punch created by the arrival of the Great Northern Railroad in Seattle followed quickly by the Klondike Gold Rush. Tacoma's dreams of being the "City of Destiny" were never made manifest. The notion that the Northern Pacific's decision to make Tacoma its western terminus would prove decisive in the battle with Seattle proved illusory.

Nevertheless, the Northern Pacific and railroading generally marked Tacoma with a distinctive stamp. Even to this day, Tacoma is described as the place where "rail meets sail"—countless containers land and then quickly depart on trains for points east and south in a volume that equals or exceeds the port of Seattle. Nevertheless, the neighborhood once known as the Union Station warehouse district, which served this market, became a hollowed-out wasteland over time, as indeed did much of the city's urban core after the construction of the Tacoma Mall on the periphery of downtown led to a decline in the retail trade. The last remnant of early grandeur, Union Station itself, was closed to passenger traffic in the mid-1980s, an event that was unquestionably the nadir of Tacoma's urban prospects.

As in Seattle, where the preservation and restoration of the Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market neighborhoods provided a sense of urban élan, the rebirth of modern Tacoma was driven by the ethos of historic preservation. The restoration of the Pantages Theater on the north end of Tacoma's downtown was a harbinger of the future, but the decisive moment came as a result of a mid-1980s grassroots community effort to save Union Station from demolition. From this single decision the state of Washington's second-largest city has enjoyed a rebirth and revitalization that is almost startling in its breadth.

The Union Station Warehouse Historic District, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, is now home to a cohesive assembly of commercial, governmental, cultural, educational, recreational, and residential assets. The station itself now houses the federal district court and the district offices of Congressmen Norman Dicks and Adam Smith. A series of world-class museums have sprung up in a triangle surrounding the station. The Washington State History Museum opened in 1996, followed by the Museum of Glass (2002), and the Tacoma Art Museum (2003). The Chihuly Bridge of Glass, named after the city's most famous son, artist Dale Chihuly, links them all. Unquestionably the great engine of redevelopment in this district was the University of Washington's decision to have its Tacoma campus occupy the warehouse buildings across the street from the neighborhood's pioneers, the courthouse and the history museum. The University of Washington at Tacoma provided the proverbial critical mass that has precipitated several residential developments and restaurants, and yet another educational institution: the innovative Tacoma School for the Arts. The state of Washington's only operating light rail line courses through the neighborhood, linking the new convention center and theater district to a transit center.

What happened in Tacoma was not the result of some grand strategic plan. Rather, a series of discrete actions, including citizen activism, governmental intervention, and private sector development, has recycled a city and given it a distinct identity and attractiveness missing for over 100 years. Tacoma is the single best Western example of the importance of historic preservation to urban municipal development.

—David Nicandri, a member of the Local Arrangements Committee, is director of the Washington State Historical Society.