Once, I could work up some sympathy for George Webb and The Stratford Co.
But those days are long gone.
Unless you were actively involved with the grass-roots effort to “Save Old City Hall,” there was a decent chance you didn’t even know Webb’s name until this week. But that all changed Tuesday, when the City Council voted 8-0 to spend $4 million in Urban Development Action Grant money, plus closing costs, to pry Old City Hall from the Seattle-based developer’s hands.
In 2005, Stratford paid $3.8 million for Old City Hall, with designs set on condos or loft-style apartments. Those were simpler times.
You know what happened next. The bottom fell out of the real estate market, and we dove head first into the Great Recession.
Meanwhile, Stratford was left holding the keys to Old City Hall, and the residential redevelopment dream never materialized. Years flipped by, the building’s tenants — such as the Pierce County AIDS Foundation — were forced out and never replaced, and the iconic landmark slipped into a state of sad disrepair. A fire. Floods. A crumbling facade. The list goes on and on.
Stratford stood pat, unwilling to budge for a price less than the one in Webb’s head. The company routinely thumbed its nose at city code enforcement efforts, refusing to perform the basic upkeep that a 122-year-old piece of Tacoma’s history requires.
It got so bad that the city had to play hardball to coerce Stratford into making any repairs at all, entering into a stipulated agreement in an attempt to ensure the building was properly maintained. Stratford racked up a $41,000 debt in the process, the price of work that the city did when the company refused to act.
In October, yet another leak was discovered in Old City Hall’s roof; city documents suggest it sprung after the previous fix job — the one piece of maintenance Stratford did undertake — proved inadequate.
Which brings us to Tuesday, and the City Council’s decision to send Webb and Stratford on their way with $4 million in guaranteed cash. This, despite a city-commissioned appraisal in March that found Old City Hall’s value to be closer to $1.6 million.
The intrinsic value of the historic property, city officials say, is what makes the deal worth it. “What would be the cost of inaction?” Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland wondered aloud during Tuesday night’s meeting. “By taking control of this building, we are taking control of our destiny.”
The bonus in all this: We’re also ridding ourselves of a property owner with an established record of disregard for all of us.
“We did not get what we wanted,” Webb told The News Tribune earlier this week, pointing out that the city’s appraisal looked at the building only for office use, not the residential vision he’s stuck on. The Microsoft alum says he’s got an estimate for the property at $3.8 million, and even rebuffed two offers from an investment group led by Grace Pleasants, including one for $4 million.
“I think we’re leaving a fair amount on the table,” Webb continued.
As much credit as the council, City Manager T.C. Broadnax and Economic Development Director Ricardo Noguera deserve for facilitating this deal and having the conviction to pull the trigger, Webb and Stratford deserve just as much blame for pushing us to this breaking point. After all, if Webb’s company had simply held up its end of the bargain and maintained Old City Hall in the manner it deserved — and, oh by the way, the manner in which the stipulated agreement spelled out — he’d probably still be the owner.
This isn’t just a pile of bricks or a generic condo building; this is Old City Hall, an iconic piece of Tacoma’s history. Anyone who assumes ownership of such a building also assumes the great responsibilities that come with it.
Instead of stepping up, Stratford chose to gamble on its investment, clinging to the potential of a future payout over doing what was right by Old City Hall and the city that built it over a century ago.
Through this lens, getting $4 million to walk away seems more than fair.