Attention bargain hunters: Tacoma’s Old City Hall is for sale … again.
Whether the city finally will be able to find a developer interested in the purchasing the building remains to be seen.
One thing seems certain: If Old City Hall does sell, it very likely will be at a price below the $4 million the city paid for the property back in 2015.
Here’s what’s also true: Even if the eventual sale of Old City Hall results in a significant financial loss for Tacoma, saving the building absolutely will have been worth it.
No question about it.
As Tacoma Historic Preservation Officer Reuben McKnight said last week, Old City Hall is “so iconic and so central to the identity of urban Tacoma that it’s almost unimaginable not to preserve it.”
“It’s the one building that we really need to make sure that we keep around for future generations,” McKnight said of Tacoma’s original landmark. “It’s the one you go to the mat for.”
Three years ago, that’s exactly what the city did, in a desperate attempt to save the building. It paid $4 million for the property — using the persuasion that only cold, hard cash can provide to wrestle it away from unresponsive owners before it crumbled beyond repair.
At the time, former Mayor Marilyn Strickland said the decision to purchase Old City Hall — at a price well above the $1.6 million it appraised for — was the only sure way to make sure the iconic property didn’t end up a “demolition by neglect.”
It worked, at least in convincing the old owners to sell Old City Hall and allowing the city to swoop in and prevent further decay. The building since has been stabilized, though plenty of expensive rehabilitation work remains.
That’s probably a big reason why the city so far has been unable to find a developer truly interested in taking the project on. McMenamins has twice dabbled, but so far nothing of real substance has materialized. Others have submitted harebrained proposals — like a space elevator to the moon — but such overtures have produced little more than humorous headlines in this paper.
In previous attempts to sell Old City Hall, the city has insisted on $4 million as a minimum bid.
This time, that requirement is out the window — an obvious acknowledgment that such a demand is likely unrealistic, given the state of the building and the substantial cost to rehabilitate it.
Yes, the city would still like to recoup its investment. But in its latest attempt to sell Old City Hall Tacoma is setting its sights on "creative deal structures" — meaning there’s a lot more room for latitude.
That’s probably a good idea. As The News Tribune’s Kate Martin reported, it could mean things that would add value to the public — like free conference-room use for neighborhood groups — in exchange for a smaller sale price.
"We are allowing for more flexibility," Elly Walkowiak, assistant director for the city’s Economic Development Department, told Martin. "People got so hung up on that $4 million figure, maybe they had great projects but it was a stumbling block for them."
Let’s hope it works, and soon. Because a rehabilitated Old City Hall won’t just preserve a key piece of Tacoma’s architectural history, it will serve as an economic engine into future.
A building like Old City Hall will help spur development, keep the city interesting, attract people and bolster Tacoma’s ability to brand itself as a unique destination, McKnight said.
As an example, he pointed to Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
While today such an idea seems unfathomable, in the early 1960s the market’s future was anything but certain. With developers and “urban renewal” types circling like vultures, it took a strong community effort to instead preserve the market, paving a path for what we know today.
“There’s a very real economic benefit to keeping these pieces of architecture and history around,” McKnight said, noting that Tacoma’s Union Station and what’s now the University of Washington Tacoma fall into the same category.
McKnight said he remains hopeful about the building’s future.
“Whoever does take it up eventually will have a one-of-a-kind thing. There isn’t another building like this anywhere around here, not just Tacoma,” he said.
The good news is that the biggest hurdle — saving the building from neglect — has happened.
For Tacoma, that means that even if Old City Hall’s eventual sale price reads like a loss on the ledger, it will have been a small price to pay.