Drawing Inspiration

For the last two years David Boe has talked about how Tacoma can work better. Now a City Council member, the architect is in a position to actually do something about it.

Photography by Young Lee for City Arts.

David Boe thinks about Tacoma differently. Fifteen years ago, the architect read about what he thought was a crazy idea: the city council at the time was attempting to lure Regal Cinemas to downtown, hoping that the multinational movie theatre company would build a multiplex. This was what Boe now calls a “home run” idea: an attempt to spur economic development by inviting big players into the community. Boe had a different idea. 

“I did some sketches,” he says, sitting at a large table in the airy Pacific Avenue office of Boe Architects. “I thought we should turn these parking garages into a market building like Pike Place Market; we can open it up and put in all these floors. I presented that at a public meeting.” 

The cineplex idea died – due to forces greater than the arguments of any single architect – but Boe’s relationship with the Tacoma cityscape and local government had just begun. In January, the forty-nine-year-old Minnesota native was appointed to the city council, the latest role in what is becoming a long rap sheet of civic and creative engagement that includes fourteen years as a downtown business owner, five years on the Tacoma Planning Commission, time served on the arts commission and a yearlong stint as Tacoma’s resident what-if-smith.

Through a series of biweekly posts on the blog Exit133, Boe shared fifty-two sketches that imagined existing Tacoma locales improved by a touch of creativity. The series was called Imagine Tacoma, and, up until last fall, it gave Boe an avenue to show what Tacoma might look like if he were in charge. In this rendered world, Cheney Stadium sits easy in the tank yards on the eastern edge of the Thea Foss Waterway, the Luzon Building still stands (cocooned in bamboo scaffolding), the Russell Building is a Municipal Grow House and Tollefson Plaza rises to become a three-story building with a rooftop garden where people might actually want to hang out.

As he settles into his current seat of power, though, Boe is retiring his sketch pad and digging into the more difficult work of actually making – not just drawing – change in Tacoma. 

“It takes five votes to do anything,” he says. “So, unless you have four people who share your vision, you’re on your own and not accomplishing anything.”

So what will Boe do with all that creative energy? City Arts decided to ask.

What have you learned from being on the council so far? You build on the decisions of your predecessors, just like a city builds on the urban design decisions that it made in the past. So, one issue that is just coming up again is transit, specifically street cars. At a recent study session, council member Ryan Mello brought up his concern over one of the options to extend the Link system up Stadium Way, connecting it through Division to MLK or J Street, or up on the hilltop. That’s fine, but there is no density on Stadium Way, so you’re spending a half-mile of trolley that has no direct benefit. The response to that is, “Well, that is where we have the link to jump from.” The thing that Tacoma does is, it builds on past decisions that may not have been the correct ones, but we will keep building on them, to the point where it doesn’t make any sense.

That seems like the type of ingrained institutional problem you would have to be insane to take on. Some of my friends have said the same thing. I have to commend the council that appointed me. I didn’t pull any punches. I didn’t tell them what I thought they wanted to hear; I told them what they’re gonna get. So, they must have wanted that perspective to fill out their team.

The duties of the council vary, but you seem focused on development. How do you feel about all of the other issues you have to deal with? Well, I am definitely going to be the land-use guy and that’s what I told them I would bring to the council. But I am really impressed, after only three weeks, with all the things the council is involved in and with how smart all of the people I am working with are.

It’s clear from your Imagine Tacoma series on the Exit133 blog that you have a sense of humor, which has to come in handy for this type of work. Sometimes I think that I am too funny for my own good, but, like my wife says, most of my humor is borrowed from somebody.

Despite the humor, the goal of Imagine Tacoma was to create things that were feasible, right? Yes, I wanted to create things that were reasonable, and I wanted to be respectful, though I did get a little cheeky a couple times with existing buildings. I didn’t want to come up with anything like “Relocating the Link.” Because we know that that’s not going to happen. The idea was to create what might be.

The response from online readers was overwhelming. Were you expecting that? I find the Internet to be an interesting messenger. I think it’s really kind of pathetic that people can hide behind pseudonyms and sit in their pajamas and comment on things. But what’s beautiful about the Internet is the same as what is bad about it; that people can anonymously comment on things and not have to be in the structure of power to get their voice heard. I do think that sometimes I took them too seriously.

Did that process affect the ideas you have about the city? No. Not really. I think architects are always looking at their city and critiquing it. This was just an outlet for that. I mean, I wasn’t getting paid, though I did get an Exit133 T-shirt. I generally don’t interact directly with the readers on the blogs. I just put my ideas out there and let the blogosphere chew it around and spit it out if they want. But it was nice to be able to start that dialogue. That’s one of the things I am not sure how to do now that I am on the council – to continue that dialogue.

Do you think that any of your ideas for Tacoma are going to be realized? Hold on. Let me take off my Imagine Tacoma hat and put on my council member hat. I think the City is going to look at Tollefson Plaza. The City does not have resources to redo anything, but I think there is an untapped wealth of creative people who could come up with some kicking ideas for that space. That’s why my wife and I like Tacoma. It’s not going to be like other cities.

Do restrictions on architecture make it necessary for you to pursue something like Imagine Tacoma as a creative outlet? There is a freedom and the freedom is that nobody has to pay for it. You know, I try to be realistic with my sketches; the improvement has to be feasible and reasonable. I made fun of turning the Russell Building into a grow house, but I have sent it to incredibly upstanding people in this community, who at first laughed out loud and thought it was the funniest thing, but then they all said the same thing: “Well, that sure would be a kick start for economic development.” And it’s not that that is something I am proposing realistically, but I do like to think about economic development beyond the conventional idea that we need to recruit some kind of large industry to relocate to Tacoma. Why can’t it be a little grittier, a little bit lower-level? I made the analogy, maybe a few too many times, to the old city council: Tacoma is always looking for the Richie Sexson, grand slam, ninth-inning home run, whereas I think we would do much better trying to get Ichiro singles and Edgar Martinez doubles. Just play small ball. Just keep hittin’. •