Tacoma’s Old City Hall finally finds some love

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

Historically, geographically and of course architecturally, it stands as a showpiece of Tacoma’s urban core.

And like many of the best pieces of Tacoma’s identity and history, it was neglected, abandoned and the subject of layers of disputed ownership and accountability.

Embroiled for years in legal tangles, it is finally free – or at least in motion.

Tacoma’s Old City Hall is finally beginning to show us what it can be.

The near 130 year-old Italianate-style structure is on its way to becoming a mixed-use facility with restaurants, bars, an event area in the clock tower, residential, office and retail space.

The project will create more than 300 local jobs and will provide much-needed affordable housing.

Alert, long-time readers (and astute Tacoma residents) might note that we have been here before.

Tacoma’s Old City Hall is prominent, historic and, thanks to being essentially unmaintained for many years, far more fragile – hence its restoration is more expensive than it needed to be.

To say that this has been a long time coming would be the ultimate understatement.

The city took ownership of the building at a cost of $4 million in 2015 to help save it from further deterioration and with hopes of permanent, sustainable and adaptive reuse.

And yes, that is a complicated story. Those who are interested in the fine print of the hows and whys of the city of Tacoma’s ownership/recovery of this property can see the details here: https://www.thenewstribune.com/news/business/article26295460.html.

Developer Eli Moreno has been negotiating with city staff over the details of his $15 million Surge Tacoma project for years now.

And, presumably, for years to come.

Moreno and his team were chosen originally in September 2018 to enter negotiations with the city to renovate the building.

Among other local and innovative touches, near rent-free space for the Tacoma Historical Society, a shared work-space and an education program for aspiring young entrepreneurs were some of the more “active ingredients” in this literal and metaphorical restoration.

Tacoma Historical Society (THS) will pay a nominal rent of around $100 a month. THS will have approximately 1,300 square feet of exhibit space in the food court area on the main floor.

THS relocation expects to be in its new digs around July of 2023.

This rehab schedule for the entire building is, of course, far from the intended construction if not completion by August of 2020.

COVID and a menagerie of unforeseeable events conspired to derail this project which was supposed to open to the public by early 2022.

Even without COVID, the complications and unexpected surprises are many.

Among many other items on the retrofit menu, the building will get its first seismic upgrade in its history.

The elevators, once prominent on every floor, will be replaced by some modern equivalent.

Originally, the agreement between Tacoma Old City Hall LLC/Surge Tacoma, led by Moreno, and the city called for 40 micro residential units (20 market rate and 20 affordable at 60 percent AMI) in the mixed-use redevelopment, along with office space, shops and three restaurants, including one on the rooftop.

As the saying goes, plans change.

The final project is expected to include basement office space, cafés, a bar and/or office space on the first level (Pacific Avenue); apartments on the fifth level; the event space on the sixth level; and any required cosmetic or structural brick veneer reinforcement.

The entire project is now expected to be completed by the end of November of 2024.

Again, those of us who have been around Tacoma have seen this play out before.

We’ve seen this building fully occupied and just as fully abandoned and locked up.

This building has been featured on historical tours – even “haunted” building tours.

Some say that the dearth of parking was the death knell for the businesses that filled Old City Hall a generation ago.

Thanks to the light rail and other modes of transportation – and an ever increasing number of those who live downtown, this should not be a problem in the future.

Looking forward

If the opportunity arises, do not miss your chance to visit the clock tower. And almost any other obscure corner and viewpoint of this truly one-of-a-kind architectural masterpiece.

Some of us even might remember a restaurant on the top floor (soon to be an unforgettable event space) which featured open air food and live music – and, of course, stunning views.

By any definition, it is a glorious building, one that (literally) stands tall, but that also, upon closer inspection, shows a level of practical skill and workmanship that, for whatever reason, it seems that we may never see again.

Yes, I’ll admit that I love this building

It was, and will be, an example of the best that Tacoma can be.

And like every building Tacoma holds at, or near, or even well beyond, the century mark, diligent (and yes, usually expensive) care is what love looks like.