Seattle's underrated neighbor

Tacoma: A harbor for arts, culture and history, Washington's third-largest city has much to offer tourists in the Northwest.

Destination: West Coast

September 23, 2001|By Zeke Wigglesworth | Zeke Wigglesworth,KNIGHT RIDDER-TRIBUNE

In some circles, you say Tacoma, and they figure you're talking about a Japanese- designed pickup truck.

Thousands of people landing at SeaTac International Airport in Tacoma, Wash., right now have no idea what the "Tac" in the airport name is all about.

Meaning that Tacoma, the third largest city in Washington (population about 195,000), is another one of those forgotten places that have the misfortune to be situated near an internationally known and gorgeous West Coast playground.

Tacoma was primed for great things when it was designated as the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad's transcontinental line in 1873 --- instead of Seattle.

Tacoma boomed as a logging and industrial town perched on North America's sixth largest deep-water port. Meanwhile, Seattle was slowly growing into the beauty queen it has become.

Today, Tacoma is a medium-size, family-oriented city with nice neighborhoods and little pretense. You might want to live there. But would you visit when Seattle is right next door?

The city is working on that.

Maybe Tacoma will never rival its neighbor 36 miles north when it comes to photogenic vistas and world-class ambience, but that doesn't mean Tacoma is sitting there feeling sorry for itself. It is, in fact, forging ahead with vigor, with a heavy emphasis on the arts and culture.

As Tacoma tries to remake itself, one major change will come along the Thea Foss Waterway, a grungy industrial waterfront area on the city's east coast that is being transformed over the next decade into a business and residential area.

During the next two to three years, the dozen or so public and private developments in the works will sequentially open their doors -- developments that amount to a major renovation of the city's waterfront area near Commencement Bay.

Among the largest projects under construction or on the drawing boards:

* Tacoma Art Museum, which will move to a new $25 million facility. The museum houses permanent collections of Northwestern artists and displays of 19th- and 20th- century art from Europe, Asia and the United States. The move should be completed by January 2003.

* Museum of Glass, dedicated to contemporary art with an emphasis on modern glass. When the facility is completed next July, the museum's 90-foot-high "hot shop" cone will no doubt be a landmark on the city's east side. The hot shop will feature working glass artists.

The 75,000-square-foot museum will have 13,000 square feet of exhibition space, a 200-seat theater and a cafe. It's about the same size as the San Jose Museum of Art, and coincidentally, Josi Callan, former executive director of the San Jose museum, will head the new glass museum.

* Chihuly Bridge of Glass, a 500-foot-long pedestrian bridge linking the Museum of Glass to the Washington State History Museum. The bridge, also scheduled to open in July, was designed by Tacoma native and internationally known glass artisan Dale Chihuly. He plans to donate about $12 million in glass art to adorn the bridge.

It's hard to go to Tacoma and not run into a stash of Chihuly glass somewhere, all sizes, shapes, colors and themes -- he has no standard style, using runaway imagination to create some often weird pieces.

Visitors to the rotunda of the classy old Union Station are surrounded by Chihuly's large and colorful avant garde sculptures. (The city managed to save the old railroad station -- a landmark since 1911--- when most of the building was turned into a federal courthouse.) There will be a permanent Chihuly exhibit in the new art museum.

* Pioneer Motorcycle Museum, a $5 million, privately funded collection of mostly American-made motorcycles, dating from 1908. The 14,000-square-foot museum will display about 200 bikes and is scheduled to open early next year.

* Harold LeMay Classic Car Collection, being built just south of the Foss Waterway next to the city's most famous sight, the Tacoma Dome (you can't miss the dome if you're driving north on Interstate 5 to SeaTac). The collection is the largest such private assemblage of automobiles in the world -- about 2,340 vehicles.

LeMay owned more than 300 Chevrolets and more than 300 Cadillacs, as well as Fords, Packards, Hudsons, Rolls-Royces, motorcycles, ambulances and limousines. Most of the vehicles are from the 1920s through the 1960s.

The $75 million museum will feature a 203,000-square-foot public area with a rotating display of 350 vehicles. It's due to open in late 2003.

* Greater Tacoma Convention Center is scheduled to open in mid-2003, and includes a 50,000-square-foot main display hall and about 25,000 square feet of meeting space. Estimated price is $60 million.

A 10- to 15-story office tower, also tagged at $60 million, is planned just north of the convention center and will include movie theaters, restaurants, underground parking and a pedestrian plaza.

When all these projects are completed, Tacoma will have an extraordinary number of museums and public facilities for a city its size.

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