Sometime next month, probably within days of an infamous city anniversary, Tacoma will complete a promise it made to itself four years ago.
After what can only be described as a debacle — the Sept. 26, 2009, demolition of the historic Luzon Building — city leaders pledged to assure they wouldn’t again have to demolish a structure that could have been saved by earlier action. The final piece is a new program to prevent demolition by neglect.
The Historic Property Maintenance Code would require owners of historically listed buildings (though not single-family houses) to maintain their buildings. If they don’t, and if they ignore requests by the city to protect them from deterioration, the proposed ordinance would allow the city to go in and stabilize the building.
Such intervention would be unlikely. Former city historic preservation officer Michael Sullivan said “we’re looking for a vaccine for an extremely rare disease.”
And the work would be relatively minor — roof repairs, for example, or shoring up failing masonry. The cost hopefully would be recovered from the owner or from the proceeds of any future sale.
Most significant, the proposed ordinance would include a revolving preservation fund that could be quickly tapped for emergency repairs. Where the money comes from has not yet been decided, but city historic preservation officer Reuben McKnight said the city manager has instructed staff to identify a source.
Another section might be called the Zimmerman Clause. That refers to the late Ron Zimmerman, who bought the old Elks Lodge after it was protected by the city’s landmarks ordinance. Zimmerman wanted to tear it down and build a much larger building but was blocked by the landmarks ordinance. He then decided to let it fall apart on its own.
Under the proposal, any parcel that once held a building that was lost due to such neglect cannot be redeveloped for five years except with a structure that matches the size, materials, aesthetic and architecture of the demolished building.
The proposed ordinance would dovetail with another passed this year — updates to the minimum structures code that give special attention to deteriorating buildings that are historically significant. Should it pass — with the emergency fund — Tacoma’s landmark protection tools would be among the nation’s strongest. And it would come just as neighboring Lakewood is considering weakening its protection of landmarks.
While the proposed ordinance looks forward, its justification comes from the past.
The significance of the Luzon was well-known in 1986 when the rest of the historic buildings on Pacific Avenue were demolished for a development that was never built. Preservationists were promised that the Luzon would be saved.
Sadly, a series of owners, including Pierce County itself, did not complete projects that would have included a rehabbed Luzon. Nor did they protect it from weather and age. When the Great Recession took down the last private owner, the Gintz Group, the city inherited the problem.
Some engineers doubted it was in danger of collapse, but the city went with engineers who said it was.
There will be those who say the ordinance violates property rights. But owners of historic buildings knew what they had when they purchased them or cooperated in the listing in order to gain tax advantages. And the ordinance might actually save taxpayers money. Had the city put a roof on the Luzon a decade earlier, it likely wouldn’t have had to spend $584,000 to tear it down. And while it has placed a lien on the property, that lien is secondary to Pierce County’s tax lien of $600,000 for bare land now assessed at just $143,400.
The county again owns the property, now behind an ugly fence and closed sidewalk, through foreclosure.
The scars are more than physical and financial. The demolition of an early work of Chicago-school architects Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root is akin to destroying early sketches by Picasso. Built in 1890, it was one of just two Burnham and Root buildings on the West Coast and among the first anywhere to use steel supports to reduce the masonry mass of commercial buildings. This concept birthed the skyscraper.
This summer, some guerrilla artists placed signs on the fence where the Luzon once stood reading “‘Temporary’ Fence?” “Heal Me” and “Missed Opportunity.”
Another, since removed, read: “Welcome. Tacoma is a place of historical value and significance but occasionally neglects its cultural assets to promote a future based on attracting interests distracted from the livability of our city.”
The council will get a chance to vote to on the ordinance Sept. 17.