The pressure is building, in and around Tacoma’s most iconic building.
Not much has changed since the last time I spilled words over Old City Hall. And that’s a big part of the problem. One of the deadlines in a stipulated agreement between the city of Tacoma and the historic landmark’s owner, The Stratford Co. of Seattle, came and went this week without progress.
The agreement gives the city authority to enter Old City Hall and, if necessary, complete repairs and recoup the cost of the work. The city had told Stratford to secure the bricks and mortar around the flattened arches above the third-story windows by Wednesday.
According to Lisa Wojtanowicz, Tacoma’s Neighborhood and Community Services Division manager, that hasn’t happened. So now the city will move to stabilize the facade on its own dime. Eventually, we’re assured, it will get a refund from Stratford.
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This is the same scenario that played out earlier this year when Stratford failed to complete an engineering study to assess the safety of building’s facade. At this very moment, the city is working to recoup nearly $41,000 for work it did then. Meanwhile, a fence and concrete barrier has been set up outside Old City Hall to prevent pedestrians from being struck by falling bricks.
Putting things diplomatically, Woitanowicz says Stratford “hasn’t been terribly proactive” on compliance issues, and communication between the company and the city has been limited. George Webb, the Microsoft alum who founded the company, hasn’t returned my calls for comment either.
And so it goes.
“I think it’s dire right now,” says Michael Sullivan, owner of Artifacts Consulting and a former historic preservation officer for Tacoma. “I think we are at a point where it deserves our community’s attention if we’re not going to lose it. If that building went down, it would be a gutshot for the city.”
In the midst of this circle of historic-preservation despair, however, comes a new twist.
Next month, by court order, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office is scheduled to execute a sale of Old City Hall, looking to recoup a judgment of just more than $113,000 against Stratford secured by the Pierce County AIDS Foundation, one of the last tenants to leave after Stratford bought the building for $3.8 million in 2005. With interest accruing daily, and other related fees, the attorney representing the Pierce County AIDS Foundation says Stratford now owes the nonprofit just over $146,000.
The AIDS Foundation won the judgment after Stratford attempted to sue the organization and another tenant, attorney Peggy Fraychineaud Gross, for breaking their leases. Both parties successfully countersued, arguing that Stratford had effectively evicted them by letting the building fall into a state of disrepair. Fraychineaud Gross’ judgment stands at just over $78,000.
The sheriff sale is on the calendar for May 15, although it’s unlikely to materialize. Considering Stratford has put millions of dollars into the building at this point, it’s hard to believe the company would walk away for a paltry sum. Paying the AIDS Foundation off would prevent the sale. Paying the Fraychineaud Gross judgment would head off the possibility of the court ordering another sale.
Against this uncertain backdrop, about 50 people gathered Tuesday night at Pat Nagle’s Harmon Tap Room to “Save Old City Hall” — one of the first public displays of a grass-roots effort that’s taken flight recently as concern over the building’s future, and seemingly absentee owners, has grown. Former mayors Bill Baarsma and Karen Vialle were on hand, rallying support for the building that’s defined Tacoma’s skyline for over a century.
The mood was upbeat but determined. It’s time to get to work, everyone seemed to agree.
The question, of course, is how exactly do we save Old City Hall?
There are options.
If it comes to it, the city could try to use eminent domain laws to seize the property. Most believe, however, that such a path would be messy and litigious. In other words, it’s an option of last resort.
In a perfect world, the city, and perhaps even the state, would get creative, and forge a public-private partnership to buy the building from Stratford and get it cleaned up and occupied as soon as possible. In the past, such creative approaches saved other Tacoma landmarks. With leadership, it can be done again.
“It has to be considered a priority,” Baarsma says. “And there has to be a champion or two on the City Council to say it’s a priority.”
The pressure around Old City Hall is growing. It’s time for the city to seize on it.