We’ve been down this road before, which is exactly what makes it so unnerving.
Last month, an ominous stretch of chain-link fence and a foreboding concrete barrier suddenly appeared outside Old City Hall, the most iconic building Tacoma has left. You know, it’s the one on Commerce Street with the brickwork and the big clock tower. It’s been there since 1893. You’ve probably seen it.
The barricade, and the future it seemed to foretell for the vacant landmark, was just the latest sign of disrespect for a building that has seen more than its fair share of it. In the 1970s, it was nearly demolished. In 2010, the building flooded. In 2013, the city required Old City Hall’s current owners, The Stratford Co. of Seattle, to fix a badly leaking roof. The list goes on.
This time around, engineers hired by the city at a price tag of $30,000 have determined that chunks of the Old City Hall’s facade are at risk of falling off. The building isn’t actively crumbling, we’re assured, but that could happen, especially during a seismic event. “It makes the engineers nervous,” Reuben McKnight, the historic preservation officer with the city of Tacoma, told me.
Understandably, the fence and concrete barricade are in place to prevent anyone from getting squashed. Less understandable, at least to many people, is how it came to this. Last Friday, in response to the fencing, a “Save Old City Hall” Facebook page was created. By the end of the weekend, according to Justin Van Dyk, its creator, the page had nearly 200 “likes” and had reached some 1,600 people.
“It just spread like wildfire,” Van Dyk explained of the movement. “Tacoma really cares about its history. There’s a pride here that’s kind of unmatched in some ways.”
If we do care about our history, city government hasn’t always acted on it, and unfortunately what this latest development feels like is the continuation of a regrettable trend. Time and time again, Tacoma’s buildings — and chunks of our collective history — have been lost to neglect or inaction. It has started to feel like business as usual. All one needs to do is take a stroll across the flat asphalt parking lot where the Luzon Building once stood to be reminded of the consequences.
Is Old City Hall destined for a similar fate? The good news is, probably not. Or at least not yet. In 2013, Tacoma entered into a stipulated agreement with The Stratford Co. requiring the company to address a number of concerns, including the leaky roof. The agreement gives the city authority to enter Old City Hall and complete inspections or repairs, if necessary, and recoup the cost of the work.
Stratford fixed the roof in 2013. But according to Lisa Wojtanowicz, Tacoma’s Neighborhood and Community Services Division manager, the company has stalled on other parts of the deal — including the execution of an engineering report examining the integrity of the building’s mortar facade, forcing the city to step in.
That’s how we arrive at the chain-link fence and the concrete barrier. When it comes to fixing the facade and making the barricade unnecessary, Stratford’s newest deadline is April 15. We’ll see what happens.
“I would say I’m frustrated,” McKnight admitted.
Of course, the folks at The Stratford Co. probably share the sentiment, at least on some level. (They didn’t return my phone calls.) The building was purchased back in 2005, not long before a certain market crash. A plan to turn the building into condos was scrapped. More recently, company officials have said they’d like to turn the property into apartments. Stratford could be simply squatting on the property, spending as little as possible and eagerly awaiting a market improvement.
Meanwhile, Tacoma stews.
“I think that people should be concerned. I’m concerned. But the city’s not going to order the demolition of this building,” McKnight assured me. “It’s rough. When buildings are left vacant for a long period of time, they do actively decline. It needs maintained. It needs love.”
What this latest saga makes clear is Old City Hall has love — at least from its citizens. But that won’t be enough.
What Old City Hall needs now, more than anything, is the attention of its owner. Short of that, it will take stronger action from the city to protect it.
This time, for a change, let’s learn from our history.