Proposed Heidelberg demolition concerns historic preservationists

A developer’s plan to tear down the century-old former Heidelberg Brewing Company headquarters and build a 160-room hotel in downtown Tacoma’s Brewery District has raised concerns of historic preservationists and members of the City of Tacoma’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
During a public meeting last night at City Hall, Seattle-based Hotel Concepts, Inc., which recently applied for a demolition permit, briefed the commission on its plan to demolish the building at 2102 S. C St. to clear space for a new Holiday Inn Express.
“Without this building going away, it would be difficult [to move forward],” said Hotel Concepts spokesperson Han G. Kim.
At issue is whether the building has historic merit and, if so, whether any mitigation would be in store should developers receive approval to demolish it. Though the building sits in the Union Station Conservation District, it is not registered on any city, state, or national historic registers. However, by virtue of its location in a conservation district, the developer’s request for a permit to demolish the building triggered a review by the landmarks commission.
The building was originally designed in 1900 by the architect C.A. Darmer, and built by Albert Miller. Over the years, however, it has undergone two expansions, four additions, and suffered damage from two arsons.
According to Reuben McKnight, the city’s historic preservation officer, the city hired a consultant in the 1990s to examine the historic significance of the building. The consultant concluded that decades of modifications “destroyed the historic character of the building.”
Still, historic preservationists argue the neighborhood, with its rows of red brick warehouses and ties to the city’s industrial past, is historically significant.
At last night’s meeting, several commissioners echoed that sentiment.
“The building forms a piece of the area’s historic context,” said Ken House, one of several commissioners who argued that an early design proposal for the new hotel, which was revealed at last night’s meeting, would not blend in with other, older buildings that comprise the district’s character.
“This is a cookie-cutter design,” said commissioner Mark McIntire.
Commissioner Jonathan Phillips pointed to the significance of where the building is located — namely, on a hillside that overlooks downtown, visible from several entry points into the city. Also, the building’s red-and-white water tower and retro “Heidelberg” lettering give the building a certain historic charm.
Sharon Winters, board president of the preservation advocacy group Historic Tacoma, pointed to the University of Washington Tacoma campus, also located in the Union Station Conservation District, as an example of a successful development project that incorporated existing buildings within the district.
“The neighborhood context is critical,” she said. “The brewery district is unique.”
Another concern: the new hotel could be a repeat of the downtown Courtyard Marriott. Since its opening several years ago, the hotel, located across the street from the sleek Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center, has been harshly criticized for its design.
“It seems to me there is a backlash because of the Marriott,” said Kim. He said he did not want his project to be judged based on any criticism of the Hotel Marriott project. “We want to be treated fairly.”
According to Tony Trunk, owner of a south portion of property that comprises half the site slated for the new hotel, a study showed it would cost $14 million to adaptively re-use the Heidelberg Building.
“Economically, it just doesn’t work,” said Trunk.
Kim urged the commission that demolishing the building to make room for a new hotel would help revitalize the area. “The neighborhood looks dangerous because of that building,” he said.
Last night’s briefing did not warrant any action by the commission. According to McKnight, the application for demolition will be fully reviewed by the commission, which will make a determination of the building’s historic significance. If it is deemed historically significant, a public hearing on the issue will follow. The commission may also determine any mitigation should a demolition permit be issued. Also, future designs for the hotel would be subject for review by the commission.
“Look very carefully at the impact of what you are proposing on the overall character,” said commissioner Greg Benton. “The care you take in design will go a long way toward informing our decision.”
The developer has said it would like to break ground in June 2008.