The Old City Hall story should have had a happy, Hollywood ending. That’s the way George Webb wrote the script.
But real life hijacked Webb’s script for the 115-year-old Tacoma landmark and turned it into a tragedy.
Webb, CEO of The Stratford Co., bought the Old City Hall in May 2005 for $3.76 million – even though then-owner Mike Bartlett of Horizon Partners hadn’t put it up for sale.
What did he see in the Italian Renaissance brick building with a dozen office and commercial tenants reputedly haunted by a ghost named Gus?
“The incredible character of this building is an asset that has been underutilized for nearly 46 years since the building was vacated as City Hall in 1959,” Webb told me shortly after he bought it. “The historic character and ornate and irreplaceable detailing in this project make it completely unique in the market. … There’s demand, we believe, for the luxury residential buyer.”
Yes, there was. Now, there is not.
So The Stratford Co. has hired David Morton, experienced at giving CPR to derelict buildings in Boston, to breathe some life into Old City Hall.
“It’s really a tragedy what happened here, it really is,” Morton said this week. “Those same kind of office tenants that were there before? I’d love to have them back in there.”
In 2005, however, The Stratford Co. saw those office tenants as obstacles and forced them out.
Why? Because the script on Old City Hall read like this: Up to 50 condominiums. European styling. View decks. A garden commons. A residents’ theater. Vaults with wine cellars. Exposed interior brick. Windows 15 feet high. Three penthouse suites up to 2,200 square feet. Commerce Street retail shops. Outdoor up-lighting to make the landmark glow in the night. A lobby concierge.
Three plot twists changed things.
First, The Stratford Co. discovered that when you change a use – from office to residential – on a building so old, you have to retrofit it with extensive, expensive seismic upgrades. And to do the reconstruction meant completely vacating the building.
Second, the Pierce County AIDS Foundation had an ironclad, long-term lease at cheap rates on the bottom floor and declined to move.
Third, the bottom fell out of the housing market, including luxury and market-rate condominiums.
“The only thing worse than planning a condo project was executing a condo project,” Webb said this week. “I’m glad we pulled the plug – as painful as it was. In the best of times, it would have worked.”
Kicking out the old tenants, however, has “kind of given us a black eye,” Morton acknowledged. “A lot of people had a hard time moving, and it created a lot of chaos. … Now that the market’s changed, we want to get it back to what it was.”
To go back to the future, Morton established a full-time presence in the Washington Building, also owned by The Stratford Co., at 1019 Pacific Ave.
He plans to use a strategy, at least for now, that worked in Boston: targeting artists and artisans to take small, inexpensive studio and retail spaces. The building also features retail and restaurant space. Remember the Tacoma Bar & Grill?
“We understand,” Morton said, “the first people in there will be a little like pioneers, because they’re moving into a fairly empty building. We want to work with them to make it happen.”
Lease rates could run $14 to $18 per square foot, he said. And because The Stratford Co. doesn’t have much capital for tenant improvements, Morton said, he would negotiate lower lease rates for artists who want to make their own improvements.
Stratford doesn’t even have money to fix the building’s clock and chimes, although if a clock hobbyist wants to fix it in exchange for some recognition, Webb and Morton would welcome that.
“We just kind of want to start the building’s heart again,” Morton said.
And write a better ending to this chapter in Old City Hall’s history.
Dan Voelpel: 253-597-8785