Peter Callaghan: Destroying Freighthouse Square unnecessary, unacceptable

Staff writerDecember 11, 2013 

Freighthouse Square, as seen from 25th and East D streets, is pictured Wednesday.

PETER HALEY — Staff photographer Buy Photo

I was pretty excited by the state of Washington’s decision last year to relocate Tacoma’s passenger rail station from Puyallup Avenue to Freighthouse Square.

The relocation is required to accommodate the changed route for intercity rail, from tracks that traveled around Point Defiance to a more-direct route through South Tacoma and Lakewood. But using Freighthouse Square instead of some other location along the tracks that parallel South 25th Street could only benefit the historic Milwaukee Road building and the fledgling Dome District.

Now we learn that, at least according to the state and its architects, it is necessary to destroy Freighthouse Square in order to save it.

As presented to Dome District association members and the station relocation advisory committee Monday, the plan is to demolish the main section of Freighthouse Square and replace it with a new building.

It was a bombshell that hadn’t been expected by the people who have been following and taking part in this process. Up to this week, the contentious issues were parking and configuring the station so that trains — especially the longer Coast Starlight — could be loaded and unloaded without blocking D Street.

Neither the city nor the neighbors want a major arterial that has benefited from tens of millions of dollars in renovations to be obstructed. And the Dome District neighbors don’t want the neighborhood turned into a giant parking facility.

So when David Smelser, the program manager for the station relocation, indicated that both of those issues were being resolved, there was a sense of relief. Briefly. Because then came the presentation by Mahlon Clements of VIA Architecture of Seattle.

While it is possible to retrofit the century-old Milwaukee Road freight warehouse to contain a waiting area, ticket counters and baggage-handling operation, it would be so extensive that it was deemed better to tear down and rebuild. The modern building Clements showed stunned many into silence, followed shortly by protest. I wish I could say it is better than the current ’80s-era Amtrak station on Puyallup Avenue but I’m not sure it is. It’s taller, at least.

And while just 7,000 square feet of the blocks-long, 100,000-square-foot Freighthouse Square would be taken down — roughly to the red awning in the current photos — it is the most visible and most historic section.

The architects took false comfort in the fact that the building is not on the city landmarks list, assuming that it must not be eligible. The actual reason is that no one applied to have it included. Had they done so, it would clearly be eligible under the city’s preservation ordinance.

Freighthouse Square has been a quirky attraction since it was developed in 1987 by Keith Stone inside the former railroad freight offices and warehouse. Disruptions caused by road and rail construction, a sale, financial problems and the Great Recession have reduced occupancy. Now owned by Brian Borgelt, who has operated other businesses in the district, the building could again be the center of a real, mixed-use district.

That’s why there was so much excitement about Amtrak and why so many worked so hard to identify and work through the issues. And it is why the apparent decision to demolish one of the last iconic structures that links the district to its hard-working past was such a gut punch.

Borgelt is certainly interested in a steady tenant like the state and Amtrak. But he should know that gaining one at the expense of a historic building he took on with eyes open isn’t acceptable. That’s way too much compromise.

Tacoma doesn’t respond well to take-it-or-leave-it proposals from Olympia or Seattle. And suggestions to change the design to make it reminiscent of the old building were unappealing. This is the only location that would work for a new station, so the city and the Dome District have more clout than they may think.

Once state transportation officials and their architects realize a demolition isn’t going to be accepted, they can return to finding ways to fit a modern railroad depot into a historic railroad building.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657

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