Can legislation save Tacoma’s neglected historic buildings?

For more than 100 years, downtown Tacoma’s Old City Hall stood as a strong symbol for the city. For civic leaders, the building was once home to the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce and served as City headquarters until the late-1950s. Its distinct Renaissance Revival architectural style and iconic clock tower beckoned many Tacoma visitors to pause and take a closer look at (and many photographs of) such a unique structure.

That changed a few years ago when the 55,505-square-foot building, located at 625 Commerce Street, was beset by a series of troubles: a transient trying to find shelter and warmth one New Year’s Eve was suspected of burning the insulation from a small roll of copper wire and setting a small fire inside the building, according to Tacoma Fire Department officials; a bank foreclosure notice appeared in this newspaper after the ownership group missed a series of mortgage payments; water pipes froze then burst following an arctic storm, spreading 30,000 gallons of water throughout the building, causing much damage and forcing tenants to evacuate; Tacoma Power threatened to shut off power to the building due to unpaid bills; a City of Tacoma building inspector deemed the property ‘derelict’ after an on-site tour; and an historic preservation advocacy organization placed the building on its list of the most endangered properties in Washington State.

Some preservationists fear historic buildings that endure crippling, long-term issues such as deferred maintenance, vandalism, or even foreclosure eventually become too expensive to save in the eyes of building owners. The term is called “demolition by neglect,” and it faces several historically significant Tacoma buildings. The former Luzon Building downtown, which was designed by two famous Chicago architects, constructed in the 1890s, and demolished in 2009 after the City of Tacoma deemed the historically significant building a safety hazard for fear it would collapse after decades of neglect. The Winthrop Hotel downtown, which was built in 1925, is in need of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance, according to a report prepared four years ago. And there’s also Old City Hall.

An initiative is under way at City Hall that aims to bolster the City of Tacoma’s enforcement codes in order to prevent such instances and perhaps save historic properties throughout the city. Tacoma City Council’s Neighborhoods and Housing Committee met Monday with city staff to discuss the proposal. Although it’s still in its development stages, city staff highlighted some of the strongest elements of a new ordinance. For one, it would likely apply only to properties listed on the Tacoma Register of Historic Places, National Register of Historic Places, and to properties within designated historic districts. The new law would provide incentives to encourage owners of neglected properties to find new owners with the means and interest to save the historic structure. It would also afford the City of Tacoma the authority to address conditions that threaten historic buildings before they are deemed ‘dangerous’ and, ultimately, demolished. Finally, the ordinance would allow the city to create an “emergency preservation fund” to tackle deferred maintenance issues that threaten Tacoma’s historic buildings.

“We want to have the ability to proactively address these issues and create the ability to intervene,” said Tacoma Historic Preservation Officer Reuben McKnight during the meeting Monday. He added that the goal is to have the ordinance operational and online before the end of this year.

Council committee members generally supported the idea Monday, but wanted staff to return with more details.

Tacoma City Councilmember David Boe called the plan “long overdue.” He also wanted more clarification on whether the ordinance would allow the city to take action on buildings owned by other municipalities. “The Luzon Building was owned by Pierce County for 20-some-odd years,” said Councilmember Boe. “Had Pierce County put a proper roof on it and took ownership of it, it would probably still be here. They neglected to maintain the integrity of that roof structure such that it rotted from the inside out. The walls were fine. But it was totally gone because it was a wood structure within. So does it matter if it’s owned by Pierce County or the Feds?”

Councilmember Anders Ibsen wanted to know more about how the city planned to pay for the emergency preservation fund.

McKnight told council committee members the timeline for updating the ordinance is “aggressive.” Over the next few months, he plans to meet with stakeholders, identify a funding source for an emergency preservation fund, and introduce an ordinance to Tacoma City Council in August.

Tacoma City Council’s Neighborhoods and Housing Committee is expected to re-visit the issue during a meeting July 1.

For a copy of the handout from this week’s meeting, click here.

To listen to audio from this week’s meeting, click here.

To read the Tacoma Daily Index‘s complete and comprehensive coverage of the Luzon Building, click on the following links:

To read the Tacoma Daily Index‘s complete and comprehensive coverage of Old City Hall, click on the following links:

To read the Tacoma Daily Index‘s complete and comprehensive coverage of the Winthrop Hotel, click on the following links:

In 2009, the Tacoma Daily Index published a series of interviews with many residents of the Winthrop Hotel. To read the complete series, click on the following links:

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengers; third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright; and second-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State. His work has also appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.