And when it comes to historic preservation and the City of Tacoma, it has not been easy to be encouraged.
Call it the Luzon Hangover.
In addition to being a prominent island in the Philippines, the Luzon was a building in downtown Tacoma that was demolished in 2009 after attempts to restore it were delayed and attempts to save it were thwarted.
The 1890 structure was one of the last two on the West Coast designed by Chicago School architects Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root. It was one of the first to use steel to lessen the bulk of lower-story masonry foundations and was considered a precursor to development of the modern skyscraper.
After the city tore it down as a public-safety hazard, then-City Manager Eric Anderson promised the City Council that the staff would do better next time, by acting earlier when significant buildings are falling into disrepair.
“In order to avoid another loss of this sort we need to start now,” Anderson wrote the council in September of 2009. He directed the Landmarks Commission staff to assess which existing historic buildings might be, as local architect Stuart Young phrased it, “in jeopardy of being ‘Luzoned.’”
City historic preservation officer Reuben McKnight looked at the 165 city buildings with landmark status to determine if any are at risk. The city also has 1,600 properties in its cultural resources survey. And it will soon complete a GIS-based database of 39,000 other buildings that are not yet on the landmarks list but that might be eligible.
But assessments and databases aren’t much good if the folks who enforce the derelict building rules don’t use them. That’s why preservationists are hoping that pending revisions to those rules would get public works and historic preservation to work in partnership when historic buildings are involved.
Under current ordinances, the Landmarks Commission must review and give its permission before a protected building can be torn down. But Landmarks becomes involved only when a building has reached the “dangerous” level. And if the city has declared an emergency – as it did with the Luzon – it doesn’t have to seek Landmarks Commission approval.
An early draft of a revised minimal building and structures code broadens Landmarks involvement and brings the historic preservation officer into play not just for listed buildings but also with so-called “historic resources” – a property that is eligible for landmarks listing or that appears to be eligible “by virtue of its age, exterior condition or known historical associations.”
“By using this broader definition, the new code helps avoid the accidental demolition of potential historic landmarks,” wrote Sharon Winters and Marshall McClintock of Historic Tacoma. But the group wants historic buildings to get special attention not just when they are in danger of demolition but when they reach the less-serious levels of derelict or substandard. And they want public notice of city enforcement actions involving historic buildings.
At a meeting of the council’s Neighborhoods and Housing Committee last week, building code enforcement staff seemed amenable to changes. They had already proposed creating exceptions for historic buildings and included language that would involve the historic preservation officer earlier. The code also allows the city to pay for emergency repairs – not just demolition – and recover costs from the owner.
But Councilman David Boe asked why the city is allowed to make repairs to a building defined as dangerous but not for a building that is at risk.
“It has to get to the point of no return before we can bring it back?” Boe asked. Yes, was the answer.
City Manager T.C. Broadnax told the committee his goal is to create an “early warning system” in which code enforcement and historic preservation could work together to identify at-risk buildings when something can be done to save them. He also said the city should be involved not just when someone complains about a building but also with “things we notice out in the community or from our historic partners.”
The committee continues working on the derelict building code and later this month it gets a look at the new historic resource inventory. Both, if done right, can start to fulfill the 3-year-old goal of no more Luzons.Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/politics