Published on November 27th, 2012 | by Daniel Rahe


Live/Work Space

There is an exciting conversation developing in the City of Tacoma, one that might have major implications upon the preservation of our historic structures and our way of thinking about how we do business.

The idea driving the conversation is Live/Work Space, a vital topic because it is one of the few progressive options our cash-strapped economy can easily navigate. And it could provide a pivotal bridge between business potential and our unfortunately ample local stock of empty or decaying business space.

The notion of living where one works is as old as humanity. Historically, the essential tradespeople of a community occupied properties near to each other, creating a locus for trade and production which often centered around a public commons or square. This formation occurred as much out of convenience as out of forethought because it served both the artisans and their patrons with equal facility. That an artisan might live in the same space where he or she worked their trade was also a matter of shrewdness, convenience, and thrift.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century incrementally dismantled the concept of community which had developed around the framework of individualized trades, replacing it with a more centralized idea of commerce.

Workers began to commute to factories and plants, slowly solidifying the distinction between residential and commercial space or districts. Large-scale commercial operations gobbled up real-estate and smaller purveyors drifted to the periphery.

As the populations of industrialized cities boomed, the need for urban planning policies also became more distinct, thus entrenching a deliberate separation between areas where people lived and areas where people worked.

Urban planning became a science, dependent upon replicable models and codes that considered the health of the population and the best interests of business owners while maximizing municipal tax revenue. In the last four decades, we have seen this approach to urban planning begin to crack under the strain of new realities.

Many cities no longer produce physical goods in the kind of volume or with the same methodology that defined their infrastructural framework. Looming towers, spacious storefronts and sprawling warehouses across the country have lost the functional necessity that once made them hum and glow with commerce.

And in the last few decades, the American economy has created a generation eschewing the tradition of fleeing cosmopolitans for the socioeconomic homogeneity of a home in the suburbs. Instead, many are drawn to urban, rather than exurban or suburban residences; and among those, many operate their own business or enterprise.

In short, it now makes sense for many urban residents to live where they work.

There is a distinction in terms that must be made clear. A live/work business space is a different kind of animal from simply “working from home.” When one works from home, they are usually working from within the walls of a building that is in a residential zone – telecommuting, if you will. Live/work space claims areas of the urban landscape previously reserved for commerce and repurposes them as both commercial AND residential. It is the trendy urban loft in an old steel warehouse, but with an operating – often open-to-the-public – business space included.

Cities across the country are stretching their municipal codebooks to allow for this evolution in the urban topography. Some, such as Oakland, California, made Live/Work Space the centerpiece of their revitalization efforts.

Under current ordinances, there is no such thing as joint Residential and Working real estate in Tacoma. There are, admittedly, mixed-use developments – but the distinction between the business space and the residential space is robust, and the business tenants rarely, if ever, live on-site. Such arrangements certainly have their place, but Live/Work policies, in many ways, make a great deal more sense for Tacoma as they could catalyze greater adaptive reuse of our aging commercial building stock.

Live/Work Space could begin to fill the voids left by departing mega-businesses and flagging real estate development. Given the popularity of the concept, there is already a useful guide developed for Washington municipalities interested in revising their codes to allow Live/Work space, provided by the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington. (link).

So, it’s not a wild or untested dreamer’s scheme, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, Sumner, Seattle, and Vancouver have all implemented Live/Work policies into their development and zoning codes with great success.

For proponents of Live/Work Space in Tacoma, the work that lies ahead is of a rather wonky sort: reviewing and understanding the restrictions in our current city codes, and addressing the challenges specific to Tacoma.

The Tacoma Arts Leadership Lab has teamed with the City of Tacoma and Historic Tacoma to explore these factors in a public discussion panel on November 28:

Artist Live/Work Space: Can It Work in Tacoma?

Join Arts Leadership Lab on November 28th for a panel discussion exploring what live/work space is, some of the issues and benefits related to artist live/work spaces, how it can be done sustainably and affordably, ways to use/reuse Tacoma’s current architectural assets, and other related topics.

Who Should Attend: Artists, advocates, developers, and anyone interested in continuing a conversation about artist live/work space and the reuse of historic buildings in Tacoma
When: Wednesday, November 28, 6 – 8 pm
Where: The New Frontier Lounge, 301 East 25th St, Tacoma
Cost: FREE

The panel of experts includes:
Rebecca Morton, ArtSpace
Ben Ferguson, BLRB Architects
Deanne Belinoff, artist and resident at Tashiro Kaplan live/work space
Sharon Winters, Historic Tacoma

Moderated by Traci Kelly, Tacoma Arts Commission and Arts Leadership Lab

The evening will begin with an overview of the concept of artist live/work spaces by Tacoma Arts Administrator, Amy McBride. This will be followed by a panel discussion and the evening will wrap up with a question and answer time.

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About the Author

Founder of Post Defiance, Dan is a father, surveyor, writer, and runner.

2 Responses to Live/Work Space

    • Kate Albert Ward says:

      It was a very dynamic conversation with a lot of great information. We tried to make a recording, but we still need to listen to it to see if it’s worth making public. We’ll let you know!

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