State budget troubles could tweak UWT Joy Building renovation

You don’t need to be a financial expert to understand the budget headache Gov. Chris Gregoire and Washington State legislators faced earlier this year.

A $9 billion deficit was projected for the 2009-2011 biennial budget. When Gregoire signed the final budget May 19, it impacted a long list of items. It reduced funding for salary increases for represented or non-represented state and higher education employees, slashed state pension contributions, and called for administrative reductions in state agencies (among other things).

One funding gap was also felt on the University of Washington Tacoma campus — specifically, money for new faculty offices and classroom space on a campus that has logged record enrollment.

UW Tacoma officials made a $54 million capital request to fund its “Phase 3” plan. The plan, whose projects would have been completed by Autumn 2011, included:

1. Russell T. Joy Building — Renovation and adaptive re-use of the 47,700 square foot building between Commerce Street and Pacific Avenue to create classroom space for more than 600 students, office pace for academic support staff, and a row of retail spaces along Pacific Avenue;

2. Jefferson Avenue Building — Construction of a new four-story, 40,000 square foot building to accommodate a library expansion and two levels of office and program space for faculty and administrators;

3. Science Building — A renovation of three rooms in the existing Science Building to create wet/dry labs.

The university received $34 million of the $54 million request. The funding gap left UWT officials to scramble for offices for faculty and administrative staff.

The issue received serious attention during the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) meeting July 22.

The Joy Building, located at 1716-1730 Pacific Ave. on the university’s downtown campus, was constructed in 1892. It is located within the Union Depot / Warehouse Historic District, which is listed on the Tacoma and National Registers of Historic Places. The building was once home to various wholesale and retail firms, but now sits vacant. A $15 million renovation of the building is moving forward. On Feb. 25, the LPC approved design plans for the first two phases of the three-phase project. The renovation should be completed by the time students begin the fall quarter in 2011.

On Wednesday, the LPC reviewed a plan to remove double-hung wood windows and replace them with aluminum clad wood windows. Similar work has been done on other UWT buildings.

But the commission also learned UWT officials were considering using the proposed Pacific Avenue retail spaces for classrooms and offices. The plan concerned several commissioners who had hoped street-level retail would increase foot traffic downtown and enhance the area.

“For years, people have walked by a blank wall,” said Commissioner Pamela Sundell. She was referring to the Joy Building’s boarded up windows that have faced Pacific Avenue for decades. Sundell argued blinds would cover those offices and classrooms fronting Pacific Avenue. “That’s what we’re going to have again — blank walls going up.”

“It creates a big dead spot in what the city expected to be a vital shopping area,” added commissioner Fred King. He said the university and City Hall had a shared interest in seeing the campus grow while also enhancing retail and street activity downtown. “I think the university is abandoning that commitment,” said King. “I don’t know who should protect the city’s interest here.”

Ysabel Trinidad, UWT’s Vice Chancellor of Administrative Services, told commissioners replacing retail space with classrooms and offices was a “difficult” decision and not a desired alternative. But the university had few options in light of a tough economy and growing demand for services. “We want to find another solution as quickly as possible,” she said.

In all of this discussion, however, one aspect was almost overlooked: the LPC only had jurisdiction over the building’s design. “The commission does not have authority over blinds or land use,” Reuben McKnight, Tacoma’s historic preservation officer, reminded the commission.

That didn’t stop commissioners from voicing their concerns. In one motion, the commission approved the removal and replacement of the building’s windows. In another motion, it directed McKnight to draft a letter outlining its concerns to Tacoma City Council and university officials.

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