Tacoma City Council to vote on law that could save historic properties

Staff writerSeptember 11, 2013 

OLD CITY HALL.jpg

The Old City Hall building on Commerce Street is shown.

LUI KIT WONG — Staff photographer

The Tacoma City Council next week could approve a law that officials hope will save historic structures from sharing the fate of the Luzon Building, which the city ordered razed in 2009.

The law would require building owners to maintain their historic properties. In extreme cases of neglect, the city would step in to make basic repairs to prevent further decay.

The issue is timely. In July, a city building inspector declared Old City Hall a “dangerous” building. The 120-year-old structure, at the corner of South Seventh Street and Pacific Avenue, would have qualified for intervention earlier under the proposed ordinance.

On Tuesday, council members forwarded the proposal to next week’s agenda for final passage.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland said the city must strike a balance between protecting property rights and saving historic buildings. But at some point, she said, it must act.

“There’s a responsibility when it becomes a public blight and a problem,” Strickland said.

“Demolition by neglect,” as the ordinance calls it, could include allowing deterioration in a building that causes instability, leaning, collapse of floors or ceilings, and crumbling of exterior facades or masonry.

If property owners don’t maintain historic buildings, the ordinance would give the city a new tool to step in before demolition becomes the only option.

The ordinance would not allow the city to completely retrofit a building. Temporary measures, such as repairing a roof or reinforcing a dangerous wall, would keep the building sound until the property owner completes required fixes.

Under current law, the city cannot act until the building is designated as “dangerous,” which usually occurs after a property owner has allowed neglect and disrepair for years.

In the case of the 118-year-old Luzon Building, help came too late. City officials ordered its demolition after determining it was in imminent danger of collapse.

City officials say Old City Hall is in better shape. The city is using existing rules to force the repair of the roof of the building’s northeast tower.

Councilman Marty Campbell said Tuesday that the proposed ordinance will help better protect historic properties. The law would apply only to buildings that are on the city or national historic register, or that are located in a designated historic district. It would not apply to residential buildings.

“It’s always a sad day when you watch a beautiful, historic building and see it crumbling away little by little,” Campbell said.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542 kate.martin@ thenewstribune.com

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