There was a tamed sense of desperation to Tacoma’s 1970’s Broadway Plaza project. The Tacoma Mall had lured away the big retailers-Penney’s, Sears, Frederick & Nelson-along with several smaller specialty shops during the mid 1960’s. The City was flush with Federal funds and a parade of ideas for saving the downtown by replacing whole blocks of sturdy brick buildings with concrete parking garages and surface parking lots. The architectural aesthetic of the day was called Brutalism and to make way for it Tacoma’s planners took big bites out of Pacific Avenue’s largely intact streetscape to insert cavernous cold concrete parking structures.
The two Brutalist parking plazas were opened in the winter of 1970 and partly due to fees, were never full or profitable. Still, downtown advocates, businesses and politicians followed a voracious path toward
creating vast parking lots and structures hoping to blunt the drain of shoppers and visitors caused by the mall. The downtown association even produced entirely fabricated aerial views of the downtown that showed broad tracts of parking to match the asphalt landscape that surrounded the mall. (Oddly reminiscent of fanciful railroad era bird’s eye maps. See Full Color Fantasy)
On the heels of the garages another trendy downtown revitalization scheme was adopted to combat the growing impact of the Tacoma Mall and drive by I-5. Like many other cities, Tacoma tried to
replicate the mall-which was itself a replication of traditional main streets- by closing Broadway to traffic and converting it to a pedestrian plaza complete with pavers, planters, big bulby light fixtures, concrete kiosks and a Brutalist fountain at 11th that echoed form and material of the new six story United Mutual Saving Bank. Ironically, the harshest example of architectural Brutalism and the building most associated with the Broadway Plaza experiment was built on the site of Tacoma’s first all concrete commercial building, the Warburton designed by Frederick Heath and finished in 1905. The colorful and varied history of the Warburton deserves another post altogether but here’s a connected story Feeling No Pain. Sadly the building was badly damaged in a fire that occured in September 1963 just as demolition was starting on the burned out ruins of the grand Tacoma Theatre at
9th and Broadway which burned in May of that year. The two corner building sites were meshed to the Broadway Plaza design with new construction projects and the brick facades and older storefronts facing Broadway between 9th and 13th were remodeled, concealed by fake fronts or closed up and skim coated with marblecrete panels, sheet metal cheese graters and blank walls.
The Broadway Plaza opened to pedestrians only in late 1973. From the beginning it was underwhelming even as merchants and downtown boosters pumped activity onto the retired boulevard. In May 1974 the Vargas Circus set up tents on the plaza and brought 150 wild and crazy animals to the show. Somehow even that didn’t work. The escalators connecting with the parking garages groaned under the fluorescent ceiling lights in the sidewalk tunnels as their bearing failed and Musak speakers turned scratchy and loud. The vast empty parking structures were just plain scary at night and most people chose to walk next to the buildings under canopies because in Tacoma it sometimes rains.
Tacoma’s shot at a pedestrian mall lasted about a decade, longer than in many other cities that tried closing streets and copying the configuration of shopping malls. In 1984 Broadway was opened again to vehicular traffic. By then a community effort led by a fierce group of “Ladies with Brooms” had restored the Pantages Theater and Tacoma had survived the urban renewal era. Fixing what was well built to start with became the pathway to reanimating the downtown. The circus was over.