Time to prime downtown, developers say

While the economy has private development in the deep freeze, Tacoma should make good on what it has promised for downtown and get ready for the thaw.

That’s some of the advice seven people in the industry gave the City Council’s Economic Development committee Wednesday. Councilman David Boe, an architect, arranged for the panel discussion on “barriers” to downtown development.

The panel discussed the difference between the Seattle and Tacoma markets, the need to adjust expectations for what kind of commercial activity happens here, and the need for immediate action.

“I live in Gig Harbor, but my office is in Seattle, unfortunately, because that’s where users tend to gravitate for office and industrial,” said Bart Brynestad , a developer with the Seattle office of Panattoni Development Company. In Tacoma, “there’s not a lot of demand.”

Some of the infrastructure improvements promised during the Russell Investments negotiations haven’t happened, panelists said.

“We put together a tremendous package to keep Russell. Part of that presentation that we said publicly was that we said we’d do (certain things) no matter what. Nothing has been done yet,” said John Barline, an attorney who represents German billionaire Erivan Haub . Haub, who has a home in Arletta, proposed building a new headquarters for Russell on his downtown “superblock.”

Barline was referring to improved streetscapes and other improvements that city officials said would happen for Tacoma whether Russell moved or not. It’s been almost a year since Russell said it would leave .

“The city has hired a streetscape architect,” Barline said. “Something like that would go a long way to making it look neat and clean” for clients seeing Tacoma for the first time.

“You don’t have to say, ‘close your eyes until you get to the building,’ ” he said.

“You don’t need more studies,” Tacoma developer Blaine Johnson told the committee. “You just need more implementation of do-able things.”

Sewer, water and power improvements may not be sexy, but they go a long way to putting developers or new tenants at ease when they’re considering where to be.

Commercial broker Eric Ceder-strand used the Broadway local improvement district as an example of an area primed for activity when the economy improves.

“If you can move quickly, you can take advantage” of a tenant who’s ready to move. “But if you’re trying to figure out water and sewer, the deal can be gone.”

Scaling expectations is part of the solution, too, the panel said. Boe used a drawing of the International Financial Services Area, which was to come up around Russell’s current building, to illustrate his point. The drawing showed a cluster of buildings that towered over those that exist now – “a little Manhattan on the Foss,” he said. He and others said such a vision isn’t realistic.

“If we just wait for the large project to be the catalyst, that hasn’t been proven to be a successful strategy,” said commercial broker Mike Hickey.

“Tacoma isn’t a Fortune 100 town,” Brynestad said. “It’s a blue-collar small town. Let’s not wait for a home run, let’s hit a whole bunch of singles.”