At some point in a man’s life, Fred Roberson said, he should own a fort.
Roberson soon will be able to check that off the list. The real estate developer plans to add the Tacoma Armory to his portfolio of historic properties when the sale closes next week.
He wouldn’t disclose the sale price, but according to public records the state has agreed to sell the armory, which has been vacant since 2011 when the Washington National Guard relocated, to Roberson for $950,000.
That line about owning a fort is a cheeky response Roberson offered his staff to explain the purchase, which will be just shy of the state’s asking price of $1 million.
“I’m just doing it for the hell of it. I cannot resist a challenge,” Roberson said in an interview, comparing it to one of his first purchases of historic property — The Harmon Building on Pacific Avenue. Roberson converted a former furniture warehouse into retail and loft apartments. “I started with the Harmon. I got an education there.”
Roberson said he has a large law firm interested in renting the offices at the armory — but he also has two schools and a third private party interested in buying it after he makes some improvements.
The Tacoma Armory was built in 1908 and was the site of mobilizations for World Wars I and II. It has been visited by three sitting presidents — William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman — and was designated a Tacoma historic landmark in 1976. In the last years of use by the National Guard, more than 300 soldiers trained there regularly.
It played a role in the city’s civic life, too, as the site of balls, sporting events and rehearsal space for a roller derby team.
“I want to make this building one that the whole community can enjoy,” Roberson said.
SOME REPAIRS NEEDED
Mat Shaw, Roberson’s commercial property manager, said Tuesday that Roberson plans to do renovations a little at a time, including bringing the building up to code. First, they’ll tackle the offices, most of which are on the first floor.
They plan no changes to the outside of the building, since it is a designated city landmark and any such changes would require approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Shaw said that a second phase of work on the inside could lead to the drill space — 20,000 square feet of open wood floor with a vaulted ceiling — being converted into an atrium and offices. But that only would happen if the rest of the building were full of tenants, he said.
The biggest immediate challenge comes in making the armory parking available for use again. The spaces are east of the building, between the armory and the County City building just down the hill. The lot sits atop some of the armory’s vaulted basement space, and it’s not stable.
“The first thing we’ll do is mitigate that issue. We’ve already had engineers in there,” Shaw said.
Any work on the parking lot will require the involvement of Pierce County, which owns part of it. The property line runs down the middle of the lot, Roberson said. Both Shaw and Roberson said they haven’t spoken yet with anyone from the county to figure out a plan, but they’re confident an agreement can be reached.
Bret Carlstad, facilities director for Pierce County, said discussions about repairs to the lot and structures underneath have gone on with the state for years. He said he had no ballpark estimate about what such repairs would cost, nor even an estimate for studying the situation to come up with a repair plan.
Even what might seem like a simple solution, which is the county selling its portion to Roberson, might not be that easy.
“You can’t access that underground space without coming across the county’s property,” he said, adding that he’s not sure what the answer is since the property line was drawn so oddly decades ago.
“It wasn’t well thought out,” Carlstad said.
OTHERS STILL FOR SALE
The Tacoma Armory is one of five armories around Washington that the state put up for sale when the National Guard moved to more efficient training grounds. It’s only the second to make it into private hands.
In January, the Everett Armory sold to Mars Hill Church for the asking price of $1.275 million, said Jim Erskine, a spokesman for the Department of Enterprise Services. The one in Pullman is under contract and expected to close by the end of June, Erskine said. It had an asking price of $250,000. Finally, the armories in Okanogan and Prosser still are on the market.
Armories “are unique spaces,” said Reuben McKnight, Tacoma’s historic preservation officer. “They can be somewhat of a challenge” to find users for because of their large assembly spaces.
“Roberson has done a bunch of historic buildings,” McKnight said. “He’s shown flexibility and vision with his projects. He’s taken on things early that other people haven’t.
“I’m excited to see what happens next,” he said.Kathleen Cooper: 253-597-8546 kathleen.cooper@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/business @KCooperTNT