On September 27, 1997, some 1,200 students converge for the first time on the permanent campus for the University of Washington Tacoma, which opened seven years earlier in a temporary location. Leaving cars parked on side streets, they walk past vacant lots and derelict buildings and enter a new and unique space for downtown Tacoma: a university placed within refurbished industrial buildings. Just five years earlier, the site of these grand but neglected structures was a part of town most people avoided. Now, after an investment of $33 million from the state, five historic warehouse buildings and a former transformer station hold the classrooms, offices, and library of a burgeoning campus of the University of Washington, and nearby storefronts along Pacific Avenue are filling up with shops, cafes, and restaurants to serve the growing academic community.
Selecting Downtown Tacoma
The decision to place UW Tacoma in the warehouse district simultaneously positioned the university to play a key role in the revitalization of downtown Tacoma and physically tied it to the city's historical emergence in the nineteenth century as the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Most of the buildings were designed and constructed for businesses seeking close proximity to the rail line. A wholesale dry-goods company named Garretson Woodruff Pratt, for instance, originally occupied the building on the corner of South 17th and Pacific avenues, and just down Pacific Avenue was a wholesale grocer in the West Coast Grocery Building. Other buildings served as hotels, freight storage, company offices, and other establishments tied to the railroad.
The area began its gradual decline when shipping and port activities moved to Tacoma's Commencement Bay tideflats in the 1920s. Over the following decades, with the spread of the automobile and the opening of the Tacoma Mall in the 1960s, downtown Tacoma suffered from problems common to many American cities in the mid-twentieth century. Economic activity shifted out of the downtown core, leaving many buildings unoccupied and the area associated with poverty and crime.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a series of poorly executed urban-renewal projects leveled several downtown blocks just north of the warehouse district and increased public awareness of the need to preserve historic buildings. When nearby Union Station closed to passenger-rail service in 1984, many feared that this landmark Beaux Arts building would meet a similar fate; in response, a citizen's group formed and led a successful campaign to save it. In 1992, a United States District Court opened in an addition built onto the newly renovated Union Station. A few years later, in 1997, the new Washington State History Museum opened in an adjacent site along Pacific Avenue.
This renewed investment in downtown Tacoma coincided with statewide efforts to expand access to higher education. Governor Booth Gardner (1936-2013) signed a law establishing five new University of Washington and Washington State University branch campuses across the state in 1989, beginning the search for a site for a university in the Tacoma area. Many community and business leaders in the area -- including Fred Haley (1912-2005), Dawn Lucien (1925-1917), Ryan Petty, and Rod Hagenbuch -- had long dreamed of a state university serving as nexus for revitalizing downtown, but it was not a foregone conclusion that the university would be located there.
The siting committee for the prospective Tacoma campus considered as many as 20 different locations in the South Sound and settled on four possible sites: available farmland in the small city of Fife east of Tacoma; a location in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood; vacant lots in downtown Tacoma; and an undeveloped tract on the Tacoma Community College campus. The downtown location, in particular, raised concerns for some Tacoma residents. At a public hearing in late September 1989, people voiced fear for their safety if the university were placed downtown. In March 1990, a News Tribune poll supported this view, with a majority of citizens favoring the Fife or TCC locations over the others.
Relatively late in the siting process, however, officials from the City of Tacoma proposed amending the downtown location to include the historic warehouse district. Instead of a long, narrow strip of mostly vacant blocks, which would require new construction, they proposed locating the university in the historic warehouse buildings on a 46-acre site bounded by Pacific and Tacoma avenues on the east and west, and by S 17th and S 21st avenues to the north and south.
The city's Office of Preservation was particularly prepared to make the case: In 1988, it had commissioned a grant-funded study called Trackside that investigated warehouse districts across the United States. It found many cities had renovated and introduced mixed uses into these districts and proposed doing the same with Tacoma's. This document, along with its building evaluations, influenced the decision-makers.
To the praise of local newspapers and community boosters, in November 1990, a month after UW Tacoma opened to students in a temporary location in the downtown Perkins Building, the UW Board of Regents and the Higher Education Coordinating Board selected the downtown warehouse location as the site for the permanent campus. As much as the siting committee and university officials were attracted to the historic character of the buildings, the board ultimately selected the downtown location because of its ease of access for commuting students.
An Industrial Legacy Honored and Mitigated
The designs for UW Tacoma and the Washington State History Museum shared an architect -- Charles Moore (1925-1993) -- who led the development of the campus's master plan. This master planning document established guidelines for the first phase of campus renovations and also outlined principles that would significantly influence the growth and character of campus development going forward. The historic quality of the buildings should be emphasized and celebrated, the plan stated, but not re-created at the sacrifice of functionality and aesthetics.
Buildings, for example, received names that reflected their origins -- such as Garretson Woodruff Pratt or West Coast Grocery -- but, inside the old structures, atriums were cut from the ground floor to the roof, bringing in natural light and exposing the sturdy old-growth beams. The plan also recognized the potential for the Snoqualmie Falls Transformer Station to become an iconic center of campus. Positioned at a diagonal to the street grid, this grand neoclassical brick building once held electrical transformers that powered at first all of Tacoma and then later just the city's streetcars. With tall arched windows and pediments punctuated by small round windows, it stands out on campus, and in a move that seems both symbolic and practical, the large multistory open space became the reading room for the library.
As the campus grew and renovated additional buildings, it continued in the tradition set by the plan. Awnings cover former loading docks converted to walkways; ghost signs for outdated businesses remain on the brick walls; old growth timber is repurposed in doors and floors; and each newly opened historic building receives a marker that briefly narrates its history. The campus has been recognized for its commitment to historic preservation. In 1999, UW Tacoma received awards from the American Institute of Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and it went on to win several other awards for its innovative approach to preservation.
Yet the location of the campus in a former industrial area also posed some complications. In the mid-1990s, for instance, a toxic plume of unknown origin was discovered seeping into the soil beneath campus. Some suspect that it originates in an old dry-cleaning facility farther up the hill. Although it is completely submerged and has no effect on drinking water, by 2017 the university had paid about $7 million to monitor and mitigate the contamination.
Because of its urban location, the university does not own all of the property within the campus. In 2002, it had acquired 65 percent of the site; by 2015, this number had grown to 80 percent. At a campus that has seen nearly constant growth, developing new classrooms, offices, and other learning spaces has posed a continual challenge. Biennial state budgets and the fluctuations in capital spending have significantly influenced development, but nonetheless the university has continued to acquire and renovate historic buildings. The young campus of UW Tacoma earned the unusual distinction of having the oldest building on any UW campus in 2001 when it purchased the 1889 Pinkerton Building.
The Prairie Line Trail
At the time the campus opened in 1997, historian Michael Sullivan recognized the historic significance of the rail line through campus: "That linear piece of ground may be the most historically important real estate in the Pacific Northwest" ("Modern Urban Campus ..."). At the time, the rail line seemed far from its storied past as the final stretch of the northern transcontinental railroad that connected the salt water of Puget Sound to Chicago. Burlington Northern trains passed through campus just a few times a week, causing pedestrians to wait at a crossing right in the middle of campus. The last freight train rolled through campus on 2003 and a small crowd gathered to wave to the engineer.
For another 10 years, Burlington Northern owned the rail right-of-way, and it remained an undeveloped and overgrown stretch of campus between buildings. Then in 2013, under the leadership of then-Chancellor Debra Friedman (1955-2014), the university bought the land and converted it to the first section of what was named the Prairie Line Trail, a rails-to-trails program planned to eventually link the campus to the waterfront and points beyond.
Centers of Historic Japantown Neighborhood
The first master plan notes that vacant lots with few structures make up the upper quadrants of the campus, along Fawcett and Tacoma avenues. The reasons for this absence date back to World War II when the residents of Tacoma's historic Japantown neighborhood were forced to relocate to internment camps in 1942. Formed in the late nineteenth century, the Tacoma Japanese American community once thrived in a neighborhood that overlapped significantly with the current campus footprint; very few of its residents returned to the neighborhood after the war. Yet three centers for the Japanese American community were located within the campus boundaries and still maintain an important connection to its members and descendants: the Japanese Language School, the Tacoma Buddhist Temple, and the Japanese Methodist Episcopal Church.
At the time the campus opened, the Japanese Language School building stood empty and dilapidated. For several decades prior to World War II, this multistory wooden building had served as a secular organization where children of the community could learn the language, traditions, and culture of Japan. After Executive Order 9066 authorized the incarceration of Japanese Americans, it was used as the site where residents registered with the federal government. Many left their belongings inside during internment, only to have the contents looted and vandalized. Thus, due to painful memories associated with the building and overall decline of the local Japanese American population, the structure went unused for decades and fell into disrepair. When the university purchased the property in 1993, it investigated the possibility of renovation, but a city evaluation deemed the structure unsafe to occupy. The building was demolished in 2003. In response, the Japanese American community, along with UW Tacoma, raised funds to commemorate the building through a sculpture by Gerard Tsutakawa (b. 1947) and an oral history project with former students.
The Tacoma Buddhist Temple, however, was still in operation in 1997 and two decades later it continued to have a vital presence on campus, holding services every Sunday for an increasingly multiethnic sangha of approximately 150 members. Affiliated with the Jōdo Shinshū, or True Pure Land sect of Buddhism, the community draws its membership primarily from the historic Japanese American community of Tacoma and their descendants, but over the past two decades, it has grown to include new members, many of them converts to Buddhism from the Tacoma area. The temple and its leadership seek to promote the teachings of Japanese Shin Buddhism and celebrate Japanese culture, food, and traditions. Each year, it holds two significant annual fundraising events -- the Sukiyaki Dinner and the Obon Festival -- both of which are well attended and draw many participants from outside the community.
When the university opened its campus in 1997, a small congregation still met in the Japanese Methodist Episcopal Church, but the congregation decided to the sell the property to the campus in 1999 and relocate to the Puyallup United Methodist Church. The university converted the building into an instructional and work space for art on campus, named the Whitney Building for the architect who designed it.
Connections with the Puyallup Tribe
Located less than a mile from the Puyallup Reservation, UW Tacoma rests within the territory where the Puyallup people have lived for thousands of years. Prior to the Treaty of 1854 and the development of the city of Tacoma, several significant village sites were located on or very close to what became the campus. Yet following the master plan and its emphasis on built structures, the interpretive signs found around campus in 1997 tended to focus on industrial, post-settlement history. Twenty years later, the indigenous perspective on the history of the campus site continued to be conspicuously absent in the public art and signage on campus.
Just off campus, however, several works of public art recognize that downtown Tacoma resides within the ancestral homelands of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. Just to the north of campus stands the Welcome Figure, a monumental statue carved in 2010 by artist and Puyallup Tribe member Shaun Peterson (b. 1975). Nearby, the Tacoma Link Union Station stop displays a poem written by Philip Red Eagle (b. 1945) alongside nineteenth-century photographs of indigenous fisherman on the Puyallup River. To the south, a large mural on the recently opened Seven Seas Brewery depicts a Puyallup woman weaving a basket and other Native American imagery.
The campus has made efforts to strengthen its relationship with the Tribe. Chairman Bill Sterud regularly opens Convocation, and the Tribe has made sizable donations to the campus. UW Tacoma professor and Puyallup Tribe member Danica Miller began offering a language revitalization program called the Lushootseet Language Institute in 2016, and a project is underway to provide campus signage in the Lushootseed language. As the relationship between UW Tacoma and the Puyallup Tribe matures, the university will have a unique opportunity to consider how to formally and publicly address the long and rich connections its location has to the Puyallup Tribe.
Catalyst for Transformation
Many in Tacoma and the wider region recognize the historic warehouse district as essential to revitalizing downtown Tacoma. In 2005, two UW Tacoma Urban Studies professors, Brian Coffey and Yonn Dierwechter, surveyed community members and concluded that the university has served as a major force for drawing business to the area: "At the very least, one can make the case that if [UW Tacoma] was not the catalyst for this investment that it accelerated the process, bringing about changes in a few years that might otherwise have taken decades" (Coffey and Dierwechter, 89). The built environment of the campus -- with its 17 historic buildings and 227,000 square feet of new buildings -- reflects the university's tangible, visible effect on downtown Tacoma. Less obvious but even more significant are the ways that this educational space has transformed the lives of the many thousands of students who have graduated from UW Tacoma.