Data from the Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer’s Office shows that nearly half a million square feet of government-owned prime buildable land sits underutilized in Downtown Tacoma. (Photo by author)

According to the City of Tacoma, “the City must plan for 127,000 additional residents and 97,000 jobs by 2040.”

Development of new housing in the City of Tacoma has lagged behind that of Pierce County and other nearby cities. Tacoma’s annual growth rate from 2021 to 2022 was .78%. By comparison, the City of Puyallup (1.17%), Pierce County (1.21%), Spokane (1.21%), and Seattle (1.30%) all had higher rates of growth. What was once a statistical footnote has snowballed into a full-blown housing crisis.

However, recent analysis indicates that housing for more than 6,000 households could be built using government-owned vacant and underutilized land in Downtown Tacoma alone.

Using data obtained from the Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer’s Office, this study focused on an area between South 4th and 21st streets along Tacoma Avenue South. Public agencies, including the University of Washington, the Pierce County Government, the City of Tacoma, and the Tacoma Public School District hold a significant amount of vacant and underutilized properties in this area. Nearly half a million square feet of prime buildable land sits underutilized.

With an assessed value of $30 million, the government agencies that own these properties pay no taxes. This is critical funding that could be benefiting the community by funding schools, emergency services, and other programs such as Pierce County’s Percent for the Arts. Additionally, the long term sequestering of prime real estate puts more pressure on taxpayers, who must subsidize the cost of public services to these properties.

If the City of Tacoma is to stay on track for absorbing 127,000 new residents by 2040, government agencies must get serious about their role in making more housing available by letting go of vacant and underutilized properties.

Vacant government-owned land in the Downtown Tacoma study area. (Photo by author)
(Photo by author)

There is one caveat that comes with the estimated potential of housing units: the City of Tacoma must update its downtown zoning code. Currently, there is a mix of zoning that has created odd combinations where on one side of the street there could be a maximum building height of 400 feet. However, across the street there is a maximum building height of 100 feet on one corner and 90 feet on the other corner. The City of Tacoma through its outdated zoning codes could be making the housing crisis worse by maintaining arbitrary zoning codes. The difference in potential housing is dramatic — ranging from 2,000 units based on existing zoning to over 6,000 units based on revised zoning codes.

Data analysis

For the purpose of this study, we focused our attention on properties on and near South Tacoma Avenue from South 4th Street to South 21st Street. Within this parameter, two different areas with high concentrations of publicly owned vacant and underutilized land emerged.

One area is near the Pierce County Courthouse building with a bulk of the parcels owned by Pierce County which were acquired 20 years ago for the purpose of building a new County Administration campus. The project remains unfunded.

A photo of an empty lots surrounding by surface level parking and large buildings.
An example of a government owned empty land surrounded by parking in the Downtown Tacoma study area. (Photo by author)

The second area is further south along Tacoma Avenue with a bulk of the property owned by the University of Washington and is in the footprint for an unfunded future expansion of University of Washington Tacoma. Many of these parcels have now sat vacant and unused for over 30 years. The initial vision for UWT was that it would have a campus similar to that of University of Washington Seattle and have a mix of student housing and instructional facilities. The reality of the market, however, has led to the UWT campus developing for commuters with prime buildable land being used for parking lots.

University of Washington Tacoma (UWT) study area
County Courthouse study area

By the numbers

Square feet: 480,012

Acres: 11

Assessed value: $29,971,300

Number of parcels: 52

Potential new households added: 2,000-6,000, depending on zoning

Number of parcels owned by state and local government agencies

Tacoma Public Schools: 2

City of Tacoma: 5

Pierce County: 14

University of Washington/UWT: 31

Article Author
Morgan Alexander (Guest Contributor)

Morgan Alexander studied Urban Planning and Community Development at the UW and
has a background in commercial real estate. He is Director of
nonprofit startup, Tacoma Improvement Alliance, dedicated to
affordable housing and neighborhood revitalization. In his spare time,
he likes making pizza with his kids and traveling with his partner.