Hope for Old City Hall? Building clean-up, foreclosure prevention efforts under way, says owner

The leader of the ownership group behind Old City Hall in downtown Tacoma told city councilmembers today that work is underway to mitigate flood damage inside the building and to work out an agreement with a bank to prevent the building’s auction.

On Nov. 24, water pipes in the iconic 117-year-old building, located at 625 Commerce Street, froze then burst following an arctic storm, spreading 30,000 gallons of water throughout the six-story building and causing much damage. On Thursday, the Tacoma Daily Index reported Union Bank of California plans to auction off Old City Hall in downtown Tacoma on Jan. 7 if the ownership group, The Stratford Company and Old City Hall LLC, fails to pay approximately $320,000 in missed mortgage payments, late fees, and related costs by Dec. 27, according to a legal notice published in Thursday’s edition of the newspaper.

“Is it your intention to keep ownership [of the building]?” Deputy Mayor Jake Fey asked during council’s noon study session Tuesday at the Pantages Theater.

“We are working actively with the bank to address that situation in the long-term,” George Webb, head of the ownership group, said. He added the building is currently for sale, and has been for more than two years. Originally, he had hoped to renovate the building to be marketed for single-use condominiums. But the recession has stopped those plans. “Clearly, the markets have not supported that use,” he said.

Webb told councilmembers that cleaning up the building has been a challenge because he has been working with the building’s insurer and public adjuster to “figure out where the water went and determine where the asbestos is. This building has not been remediated. There were hazardous materials. It was not in anyone’s interest to rip into the building and tear it apart.” Instead, McBride Construction is on-site and will spend the next 45 days emptying the building of water-damaged drywall and carpet, as well as any other hazardous materials.

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland asked if Old City Hall is on the verge of demolition.

“That would be a huge mistake,” said Webb. “I don’t think in any way, shape or form that would be true. I don’t see any reason why those rumors got started. There’s no major secondary damage that is visible. The delays have been around environmental issues. Everything that is happening now is what should be happening.”

Councilmember David Boe said Old City Hall, with its iconic clock tower, is a building with great potential, but has been neglected in recent years. He said the structure’s inoperable clock tower, broken windows, and torn canopies send “a message of dereliction” to visitors. He added that perhaps the city hadn’t done enough in terms of code enforcement to make sure these issues were addressed. “It’s a private building, but it has such civic importance,” he said. “We need to get creative. There’s lots that needs to be done.”

City Council is expected to study the possibility of creating a public development authority aimed to preserve old buildings that face similar perils. In 2009, the 1890s-era Luzon Building, owned by Gintz Group, was demolished after decades of neglect and deferred maintenance. The City declared the six-story downtown building was a public safety hazard that could collapse at any moment, and ordered it razed. Similarly, the 85-year-old, 12-story Winthrop apartment building, owned by Prium Companies and currently for sale, is in dire need of repairs after decades of deferred maintenance.

The idea to create a public development authority was raised by Councilmember Boe during city council’s committee of the whole meeting on Dec. 7. “It does not help the situation right now [with Old City Hall], but it potentially is a mechanism for buildings that are iconic and historic in our town,” said Councilmember Boe during that meeting. “We have historic districts. We have the Landmarks Preservation Commission. We have all these requirements. And yet, Old City Hall slips through the fingers. This may be a mechanism that . . . gives us another tool in the tool box.”

The idea will likely be taken up next year either by city council’s neighborhoods and housing committee or community and economic development committee.

A collection of historic photographs of 117-year-old Old City Hall were on display in the building's lobby during a tour three years ago. (FILE PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)


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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.