Luzon’s Tough Lesson

Editorial By Sharon Winters, Board President, Historic Tacoma

After recent structural assessments and no owner action to stabilize or rehabilitate the building, the City of Tacoma has decided to take emergency action and demolish the fabled 1891 Luzon Building on Pacific Avenue due to its public safety threat. According to Charlie Solverson, director of Building and Land Use Services for the City, the building is in a state of “progressive collapse” with instability of all four exterior walls, collapse of interior beams, and a six-foot deflection or bowing at the top of one wall.

Because of the threat to public safety, the City plans to demolish the property soon, probably the weekend of Sept. 26-27.

Solverson notes that the City does not believe it is feasible to stabilize the building given its condition unless rehabilitation could commence immediately. Gintz Group, the owner, does not have the capability to rehab and recently declined to sell to a buyer who did have the equity to stabilize and begin rehab. Demolition and asbestos clean-up expense is estimated at $600,000; the City will place a lien on the property as a result.

The City is committed to trying to salvage historic elements and building materials. Historic Tacoma is working to connect qualified deconstruction and salvage firms with Mr. Solverson’s office. The City also plans to document the building before demolition.

After watching and contributing to discussion of possible solutions for the past year, Historic Tacoma believes the following:

  • Dating back to Pierce County ownership of the building, there were a number of missed opportunities to rehab the building when it was still in good condition. We know of at least one potential buyer who was turned away by the County 10 years ago, because he declined to buy the whole block;
  • Salvage and re-use of building materials is an environmentally preferable solution to the landfill. Because of the fryable asbestos and delicate building condition, deconstruction will probably not be possible;
  • The Tacoma City Manager and staff in the City’s Economic Development Department made strenuous efforts to find a buyer who could stabilize and rehabilitate the building. Most of the cards were in the hands of the owner. There is no joy in City Hall over this decision;
  • The City should explore establishing a Public Development Authority (PDA) devoted to historic preservation, working exclusively on properties like the Luzon and other structures listed on Historic Tacoma’s Watch List, which are difficult for developers to take on.

We mourn the pending loss of the Luzon, the City’s most significant architectural treasure. It was a break-through structure for the Chicago firm of Burnham & Root and commanded a striking presence on Pacific Avenue for many years.

But we must take the lessons learned from this and the demolition of First United Methodist Church in 2007 and put policies and incentives in place to preserve significant historic structures which have just recently come to be regarded as assets and economic development tools for the City.

Historic Tacoma continues to take a leadership role but broad-based community support is needed to embed two values among our leaders, developers, and property owners: environmental sustainability and historic preservation.

For more information about Historic Tacoma, visit historictacoma.net

"The City should explore establishing a PDA devoted to historic preservation, working exclusively on properties like the Luzon and other structures listed on Historic Tacoma's Watch List, which are difficult for developers to take on," says Historic Tacoma Board President Sharon Winters. (FILE PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

.