In January, architect and business owner David Boe was appointed to the Tacoma City Council. The seat at the table of city government has came after almost fifteen years of mixing it up with the city, capped off by Imagine Tacoma, a biweekly column of architectural sketches that he contributed to the Exit133.com blog for a year before giving it up last fall. As a columnist, Boe freely explored how Tacoma could be a better place. Now that Boe has a say in how the city works, City Arts sat with him and talked about the intersection of creativity and city politics. Here are a few questions that didn't make the final cut.
Why in the world would you choose to get involved in government?
A lot of people have asked me that. And I backed up and say, ‘Well, why did I get involved in the planning commission?’ That was because, having designed a building downtown that was, in a sense, restricted from being the building it could have been by the city’s own code. I can tell you what all its major faults are, and its major faults were all in response to requirements of the city code.
There was lots of frustration when I would sit with a client and tell them, 'I can design you a better building and a cheaper building, but that it would take two or three years to change the code to allow us to do that.' And they said, ‘No, we have a schedule and we need to get this done.’
So, a group of us went to the planning commission and showed how, when you add up all these rules, it really goes against the major intent of what they are supposed to be doing. And it was eye-opening to me that a lot of this questions had not been asked in the development of the code.
Shortly thereafter the architecture position came open on the planning commission and the City of Tacoma staff, who were probably tired of my berating them over the situation, sent me the application. And I thought, well, dammit, I’ll see if they’ll accept me onto that commission to ask questions as a practicing architect. And I was selected.
Being involved in the planning commission level allowed me to have input on code and policy, except I was only recommending to the council. One of the issues we dealt with was unanimously recommended by the Planning Commission and it went to City Council and they overturned it, because politics came into play and I was very upset. It had to do with uses on the Thea Foss Waterway, particularly on the Eastside of the Foss, which is now coming back to the planning commission through the shorelines update. But, I also say at that time that, gosh, there weren’t people on the council asking questions, development questions, questions regarding underlying urban development aspects.
Where did your Imagine Tacoma project come from?
It actually started when I had just moved downtown. It was ’96 and a multiplex was going to go in; the city was courting Regal Cinemas to come in and tear down a lot of the garages that are up on Broadway, and take it all down and put up a shopping mall with a cineplex in it; it was going to be something ridiculous with ten screens. And everyone thought it was going to resurrect downtown. But that’s that homerun mentality. So, I did some sketches – I think one is still hanging up at Sanford and Son Antiques – but I thought we should turn these parking garages into a market building like Pike Place Market, and we can open it up and put in all these floors. In a sense, [Sanford and Son owner] Alan Gorsuch has done that with his funky retail mall area, but this was to be on a larger scale and this was to be a year-round marketplace. I presented that at a public meeting. That’s probably what started my habit of creating sketches of how things could be made better. I probably didn’t have any work at the time either. [Laughs.] I had another one at the time that turned Park Place North into a cineplex. If you do a Cineplex, that’s the place to do it, because it’s just a big hole. In the end, nothing ended up happening with it.
Do you think you would be on Council if you wouldn’t have taken on Imagine Tacoma?
There is one thing my wife said throughout this entire thing; which is, just be yourself. It helps that I am a little bit schizophrenic in all the different things I do. There are some things I thought may not make me appropriate for council. But I think the service on the planning commission was huge. Being a downtown businessman for the last fourteen years; being a sole proprietor, being in the city, having lived on both the south end and the north end, service on the arts commission. I had that background of the “traditional” appointee, and then I think a lot of support from a lot of the business community. I think the Exit133 just got me a little bit more awareness. I think some of the projects I did caught the attention of some of the blogs. Coincidental? Maybe.