This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
Chancellor Pat Spakes is not a miracle worker, no matter how much University of Washington Tacoma boosters and downtown merchants might hope she was.
She couldn’t prevent the Legislature from shortchanging the UWT $20 million that would have built a faculty office building. Nor can she wish away the recession-era forces that are dogging retail prospects for other university-owned buildings.
A shortage of faculty offices coupled with the dim economic outlook for merchants has Spakes considering backtracking on the university’s commitment to fill Pacific Avenue storefronts with shops and restaurants.
Existing merchants are protesting the plan to put a classroom and possibly faculty offices on the ground floor of the university’s Russell T. Joy building, now under renovation. University officials say that trying to market the space to retailers is next to impossible in the current economic climate.
They are probably right. Down the street, the owners of Pacific Plaza say they have tried for three years to find a retail tenant; they too want to open up ground level space to office use.
But if Spakes can’t produce tenants out of thin air, neither she nor the university can let their decisions be guided only by self interest.
Spakes’ plan to fill ground floor space with something other than retail might make sense in the short term, but her long-range objective would betray the university’s obligation to downtown. She says that retail space, once it can be leased, is to be leased to businesses that cater to students.
Understandably, her plan does not sit well with retailers who have sunk all they have into businesses in the hope of attracting people with money to spend. These are businesses that, in addition to capitalizing on the UWT’s presence, have helped the campus become a place where students – and professors – want to be. The southern end of downtown would be a far deader strip if university classes were its only draw.
Tacoma has given the UWT a wide berth as the university has worked to secure and develop its 46-acre footprint. Its unusual predicament – the university owns only about 80 percent of its designated campus – justified the deference. So too did the part the UWT’s creation played in resurrecting downtown Tacoma.
But the UWT still has a supporting role to play. A public university that owns and occupies downtown property is, by default, in the business of economic development. A plan for downtown Tacoma’s main drag that is constrained by students’ wishes and wallets fails the fundamental highest and best use test.
Spakes may not be able to cure the economy, but she should commit to helping downtown making the most of the eventual recovery.