Public discussion continues on plan to save Tacoma’s historic buildings from wrecking ball

Tacoma residents concerned about preserving some of the city’s landmark structures will have an opportunity this week to learn more about a proposed ordinance that aims to save Tacoma’s historically significant, yet endangered, buildings.

In May, the Tacoma Daily Index reported an initiative is under way at City Hall designed to bolster the City of Tacoma’s enforcement codes in order to prevent instances of so-called “demolition by neglect,” the process by which buildings endure crippling, long-term issues such as deferred maintenance, vandalism, or even foreclosure and eventually become too expensive to save in the eyes of building owners. In Tacoma, the Luzon Building, which was designed by famed Chicago architects John Wellborn Root and Daniel Hudson Burnham during the 1890s, was demolished in 2009 after city inspectors deemed the historically significant building a safety hazard for fear it would collapse after decades of neglect. Similarly, 120-year-old Old City Hall has experienced the threat of foreclosure, fire damage at the hands of a transient, a ‘derelict’ designation by city inspectors, and an ‘endangered’ designation by a local historic preservation group. Finally, the 88-year-old Winthrop Hotel is in need of nearly $16 million in deferred maintenance, according to a report prepared four years ago.

In June, Tacoma City Council’s Neighborhoods and Housing Committee met 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, which would define neglect as a public nuisance. 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,” Tacoma Historic Preservation Officer Reuben McKnight told councilmembers during the meeting in June. He added that the goal is to have the ordinance operational and online before the end of this year.

In an e-mail Friday, McKnight added the new ordinance, titled “Preventing Neglect of Historic Properties,” would be added to Title 8 of the Tacoma Municipal Code as a new chapter. “The proposed ordinance would allow the city to act, where appropriate, to prevent neglect of commercial and multifamily historically designated buildings earlier in the process of a building’s decline through its authority to abate public nuisances before a building becomes ‘dangerous’ or unfit for human habitation,” wrote McKnight. “Existing minimum buildings standards, already in place, will remain unchanged. Historic single family residences will not be affected by this code change.”

An informational session about the proposed ordinance is scheduled to take place on on Thurs., Aug. 8 at 5:30 p.m. at Tacoma Municipal Building North, 733 Market St., Room 16.

Additionally, a series of public meetings will be held over the next couple months to discuss the proposed ordinance:

  • Weds., Aug. 14 — City of Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission
  • Mon., Aug. 19 — Tacoma City Council Neighborhoods and Housing Committee
  • Tues., Sept. 10 — Tacoma City Council study session
  • Tues., Sept. 10 — Tacoma City Council meeting (first reading of the ordinance)
  • Tues., Sept. 17 — Tacoma City Council meeting (second reading of the ordinance)

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