Yesterday (April 11, 2012), the Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission heard a presentation from the City’s Long Range Planning Manager, Ian Munce, regarding the ongoing policy work on the topic of “Live/Work” spaces. Sharon Winters, of Historic Tacoma, also spoke to the commission about this innovative idea, and shared a brief report of successful “Live/Work” implementation in other US cities.
Live/Work space, as defined in Historic Tacoma’s report, refers to the reuse of existing industrial or commercial buildings as housing, possibly with requirements for business licenses and limitations on square footage of residential space. Proponents of the concept suggest that Live/Work space policies “encourage the occupation and adaptive re-use of historic buildings and return underutilized buildings to tax rolls.”
Sharon Winters has repeatedly emphasized to me that Tacoma’s historic structures are perhaps the city’s greatest cultural and economic resource. The notion of Live/Work space in historic structures acknowledges their value by returning them to the workforce, making them economic engines and less vulnerable to the ravages of neglect.
This is an idea with potential for significant public support and professional collaboration. A similar idea has already met with great success here: Spaceworks Tacoma. According to their webpage, Spaceworks is
a joint initiative of the City of Tacoma and Shunpike designed to activate empty storefronts. The initiative makes no- and low-cost temporary space available to artists, fledgling creative entrepreneurs, organizations, and community groups by placing them in unused commercial properties.
The parallels are quite clear. Live/Work policies aim to rejuvenate underutilized spaces the same way Spaceworks Tacoma brought life to shuttered storefront windows. But Live/Work policies require some code changes and zoning considerations, since the goals include long-term use, residential occupation and business operation.
Viability of Live/Work spaces in Tacoma will depend on the interest and participation of building owners. We can safely assume that demonstrable evidence of demand and profitability will be the most convincing arguments to such stakeholders. There’s no denying that the concept is a trendy one, and attractive to artisans, artists and the growing contingent of young professionals working on solo business ventures. Is the success of the Spaceworks program evidence that there is untapped demand for such space?
It’s an important question to ask, because code changes will likely force some building owners to invest in accessibility, energy conservation, sprinkler systems, fire alarms or even (possibly) seismic considerations. And if officials can develop codes supportive of Live/Work adaptation, where will we see these spaces emerge? Areas that were mentioned in the Commission discussion included The Brewery District, Nalley Valley and South Tacoma Way. Are we really likely to see interest in residential occupation in such areas?
I can’t help but feel supportive of Live/Work spaces in Tacoma’s historic buildings. It is a progressive idea, attuned to the particular needs of our particular time. So far, public chatter on the idea has been minimal, mostly because the policy revisions it necessitates are not sexy, interesting or major. But with the support of Historic Tacoma, Live/Work may move from the realm of policy-wonks to a broader discussion. Public engagement is what gives these kinds of things momentum.
Exit133 (still the best place to go for relevant daily civic updates) briefly discussed the Live/Work conversation prior to yesterday’s meeting. You can check it out here.
If you want to read a little deeper, check out the Thomas Dolan Institute and The Live/Work Institute website here.
Photos by Alicia Wilkinson