New convention center hotel breaks ground in downtown Tacoma

Tacoma celebrated the past and the future Wednesday, as city leaders, builders and dignitaries turned out for a groundbreaking ceremony at the site of what will be Tacoma’s newest first class hotel, the Courtyard by Marriott.

Located at the intersection of South 15th and Commerce streets, the Courtyard by Marriott will be a blend of the old and new, as the hotel will incorporate the renovated Waddell Building.

The hotel is just the latest addition to a downtown that is in the midst of a major transformation.

On Commerce Street, the hotel will be located alongside the light rail line that is planned to be in service this fall, and adjacent to the new convention center that is currently under construction.

City leaders – a majority of whom were in attendance – and Hollander Investments officials were excited about the prospect of a new hotel and what that would mean for Tacoma.

City Council member Kevin Phelps and Mayor Bill Baarsma addressed the crowd of several hundred people.

Phelps said it was time to modify Tacoma’s slogan, “City of Destiny.”

“I would say, in fact, we have arrived at our destiny,” said Phelps, a Convention and Visitor Bureau board member. “We are a destination city.”

The construction of the hotel will play a big role in making Tacoma a leader in the region and the nation, he added.

Baarsma agreed, repeating a question he has used at a slew of groundbreakings and grand openings in Tacoma recently: “Are we on a roll or what?”

That roll – in addition to the several projects in the works – includes several downtown developments over the last year or so, such as the Museum of Glass and the Thea’s Landing residential complex, as well as the new Tacoma Art Museum, which opened Saturday.

“They’re all bringing people to Tacoma,” Baarsma said. “It’s important to have a critical mass of hotel rooms nearby.”

The Courtyard by Marriott will do much more than provide hotel rooms. It will bring together Tacoma’s past with the city’s future, by including the historic Waddell Building as part of the new hotel.

Michael Sullivan, a historic preservation specialist, offered a brief sketch of the 113-year-old building’s colorful history, literally. The Waddell Building has gone from lime-green eyesore to its current, more muted outward appearance featuring stained glass, sandstone and dark green trim.

“This really is a butterfly coming out of the cocoon,” Baarsma observed.

The Waddell Building has gone through many incarnations, from a hotel and bank to a brandy-and-cigar saloon headed by a brothel keeper to a so-called soft drink parlor during Prohibition, Sullivan said, noting the building has also been home to many of the city’s birds over the years.

“We don’t live in a new city,” Sullivan said, adding, “We’re always doing new things.”

The City Council on Tuesday made the building an official city landmark by approving its designation to the Tacoma Register of Historic Places.

“We’ve been interested in Tacoma for some time,” said Mark Hollander, developer of the $12 million project and owner of the Bellingham-based Hollander Investments. “I think it’s something you can be proud of.”

The hotel itself will be geared toward the corporate customer. In addition to the 153 guest rooms, some other Courtyard by Marriott amenities will include a meeting space, a lounge, breakfast cafe and small market, an indoor pool and hot tub, as well as 18,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space.

The mixed-use building will be completed in mid-2004, Hollander said, just ahead of the planned opening of the new convention center.

Toward the end of the event, city leaders and other dignitaries used gold-painted shovels to dig up some dirt – taken from across the street – piled up along Commerce Street in front of the Waddell Building.

Waiters offered desserts and bottled water to those on hand. Souvenir umbrellas were handed out throughout the ceremony, but weren’t needed, as it remained sunny for most of the one-hour event.

The festive atmosphere at the groundbreaking was a brief but welcome respite for a city still dealing with the repercussions from the murder-suicide of Police Chief David Brame, and his wife, Crystal, last month.

Phelps made an indirect reference to the controversy during his address, but there was otherwise no mention of it.

City Manager Ray Corpuz, who appointed Brame police chief and is on paid administrative leave during the ensuing investigation, was in attendance.