Welcome sign at mouth of Foss?

From Commencement Bay, the mouth of Tacoma's Thea Foss Waterway gives few hints of what attractions lie within.

The east side of the waterway is decidedly industrial, lined with petroleum tank farms and old warehouses as bookends to the new Center for Urban Waters.

There are no directional signs or welcoming murals pointing to the Museum of Glass, the waterfront art displays or upscale apartments and marinas that populate the west banks beyond the Murray Morgan Bridge.

But now, thanks to a proposal from a waterfront civic group, the Port of Tacoma commission is contemplating a proposal that could turn the bay end of one of its large warehouses into a canvas for a supersized sign or mural that would decorate the waterway’s anonymous entrance.

The project has been on the back burner for years, said Tacoma Waterfront Association President Stan Selden, but its accomplishment has met roadblocks at nearly every turn.

Now, several port commissioners are worried the project could skewer a profitable real estate deal.

The commission last week tabled a proposal from Commissioner Don Meyer to offer the north wall of the World War II-vintage, port-owned warehouse on East F Street as the site for such a sign or mural. Any mural or sign would be privately financed.

The port is negotiating a lease extension with the building’s tenant, Capital Lumber, that includes port-paid structural repairs and repainting of the 100,000-square-foot structure.

Under the present lease, the lumber products distribution firm has the right to put signs on both the north and south sides of the building. The new lease that the port had negotiated with the lumber firm continued that provision, though the lumber company has never exercised its signage rights.

Meyer’s proposal would have modified the lease to allow the lumber company sign on only the building’s south side.

Commission President Don Johnson raised a warning flag. The matter of what appears on the building’s north end should be decided between the civic group and the lumber company, he said. Changing the terms of the lease at a late stage, he said, could kill a deal that over five years will yield the port $1.1 million in net income.

Commissioner Connie Bacon wondered who would decide on the artistic merit of any sign or mural.

As questions developed, the commission asked the port staff to further investigate the issue, and the lease deal was tabled until the port’s next meeting.

Selden said the commission need not worry about the good taste or artistic merit of what would be painted on the structure. The association has consulted the Tacoma Art Museum and the Tacoma Art Commission as well as many waterfront property owners about the idea.

While no design has yet been selected, he said, proposals will get a thorough airing before any designs go up.

The warehouse wall would be just part of a large mural project along the Foss’ east side, he said. The association has had extensive talks in the past with NuStar Energy, which owns one of the tank farms. The company supports the idea of decorating its tanks with appropriate murals, he said.

The last time the association proposed disguising the industrial tanks with murals, in 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency raised concerns that the murals could raise the evaporation rate of gasoline now stored in the white-painted tanks, thus releasing more pollutants into the air, said Selden.

Multi-color paint could also make cracks in those tanks harder to see, the agency said.

But Selden said similar tanks in other parts of the country have been decorated with murals or signs without any environmental consequences. In Texas, near Houston, several large tanks abutting a freeway have been decorated with large decal-like displays depicting the battle of San Jacinto.

The association has recently renewed talks with the oil company and with the EPA over the tanks.

Meanwhile, Meyer, former executive director of the Foss Waterway Development Authority, said he hopes the lease deal can be amended to allow the mural on the building’s north end.

Meyer said he too is concerned about ensuring that Capital Lumber will remain a port tenant, but he believes the change can be negotiated successfully. The lumber company was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

“I think this is a golden opportunity to change the bay face of the Foss to welcome boaters to Tacoma,” Meyer said.

“We should act now while we have the chance.”

John Gillie: 253-597-8663