Winthrop vote illuminates city’s affordable housing concerns

Affordable housing advocates, low-income residents, and downtown workers packed the council chambers at City Hall last night as the Tacoma City Council voted on a resolution to support a developer’s plan to rehabilitate the historic Winthrop Hotel.

In the end, however, councilmembers awkwardly modified the resolution and voted twice — first on whether to support the plan, then on whether to oppose the plan — resulting in the council neither supporting nor opposing the plan.

At issue was a request from the housing division of the State Department of Community Trade and Economic Development, which could provide funding to a private development firm that wants to purchase and rehabilitate the building, which currently houses 194 low-income residents.

The developer, Oakland-based A.F. Evans, plans to spend as much as $21 million to purchase and renovate the building by restoring its grand ballroom, improving commercial storefronts, and transforming 26 units into market-rate apartments. The remaining 168 units would continue to serve as federally subsidized apartments.

Though city staffers typically write letters supporting state-funded projects, this issue was placed before the full council because the Winthrop’s future is a hot political topic.

Some councilmembers, including Mayor Bill Baarsma, want to see the Winthrop restored to its status as a premier hotel. Others, such as Winthrop residents and advocates for affordable housing, support the developer’’s plans because it preserves the Winthrop as a housing resource for low-income residents.

““I am fighting to keep my only subsidized housing,”“” Winthrop resident Yvonne Dice told the council. She supported A.F. Evans’s plan. “““I pray for you that your hearts and minds be tenderized. I pray that you will do what is right.””“

Dice was one of more than 30 people who signed up to speak during the council meeting, a process that pushed the meeting well past 9 p.m.

“““I don’t’t want to lose my home,”“” said Linda Sumi, a Winthrop resident for 12 years. “““We have a real community there.””“

But Erik Bjornson, a Tacoma resident works in an office building near the Winthrop, told councilmembers that the Theater District, which includes the Winthrop, has been neglected for some time, and restoring the historic building as a hotel was the right thing to do.

“““The A.F. Evans proposal will do little or nothing to change the situation,””“ said Bjornson. “”“The Winthrop was designed as a hotel, and is referred to as the Winthrop Hotel.””“

Richard Grady, who also works downtown, agreed. He told councilmembers that the Winthrop as a hotel could serve as “an anchor tenant” leading to the revitalization of downtown Tacoma.

But Tacoma resident Lynn Lawrence wondered whether displacing Winthrop residents in order to convert the building into a hotel was such a good idea. “““We may not be able to fill up a high-grade hotel,”“” Lawrence told councilmembers.

Councilmember Mike Lonergan echoed that sentiment.

“““There is still a finite market for hotels,”“” said Lonergan, who pointed to the Sheraton, Marriott, and Tacoma Dome Hotel — all located downtown. He argued that hotel developers, including Bellingham-based Hollander Investments, have looked at the building but a conversion doesn’t pencil out. “““Hollander people looked at this and said, ‘’It’s not do-able as a hotel.’”’”

But Mayor Baarsma disagreed. He reiterated his desire to see the Winthrop restored to its former glory as a hotel.

“““We are at a turning point in the development of the city of Tacoma,”“” said Baarsma. “““We’ve invested millions into the Theater District, which is floundering. This is it, folks. We can go one way or the other. We’re either going to move forward or take a step back. We’re either going to move to the future and think big, or regress.””“

Baarsma had support from Ryan Petty, the city’s community and economic development director.

“““It’s my sincere and deep belief that should this property become a hotel again, it will signal a renaissance for that part of downtown,”“” said Petty.

Still, Petty admitted that federal subsidies dictated the project’s success.

“““The key thing is that this is a unique property subsidized by affordable housing, and that subsidy comes up,”“” Petty added.“ “In order to make it work financially, it requires the subsidy. Without that subsidy, this property could not contain the purchase price this property has garnered.””“

Councilmember Julie Anderson was impressed by the number of Winthrop residents who showed up to the meeting to express concern about the building’s future, and the issues of crime and blight that surround the neighborhood. She challenged residents to form a tenant association and block watch to help the city combat the problems.

“““There is visible and real social disorder in that area,”“” said Anderson. “““I’m not ready to hang my hat on the residents of the Winthrop for that problem.””“

What impact the city’s official lack of position on the issue will have on state funding for the project is uncertain.

“”“I think they will make their own judgement,””“ said Tory Laughlin Taylor, Northwest regional manager for A.F. Evans, referring to whether the state would provide funds for the project without city support. She said that A.F. Evans has 30 years of development experience working in neighborhoods that are struggling or changing. Still, she was frustrated by the city’s actions.

“It doesn’t send a clear message from Tacoma,”“” she added.

The Winthrop Hotel in downtown Tacoma. (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

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.