From the roof of the Hess Building, the distant view is spectacular: Mount Rainier in its snow-covered glory, the deep waters of Commencement Bay, Tacoma’s downtown skyline. The up-close view is not so pleasant.
The rooftop of the nearly century-old Pierce County-owned office building is showing its advanced age. Two 30-year-old heating and air conditioning units’ fan shrouds are deeply pitted with rust. The roof’s surface is mossy and showing evidence of leaks. And the roof’s parapets are fragile and uneven.
In the building’s basement, the brick walls beneath the sidewalk are crumbling, and on the first floor, the canopy over the building’s main entrance is rusted and leaking.
“It’s a piece of crap building,” said Maura Maye, a county human resources specialist who has worked in the building 13 years. “It can be freezing in the winter, hot in the summer and noisy most all of the time.” Because of those deficiencies, classrooms used for testing and instruction can’t be used some of the time.
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An engineering study a decade ago suggested that rehabilitating the building would be expensive and uneconomic. It recommended the structure at 901 Tacoma Ave. S. be razed and replaced with a new building. Yet the county continues to occupy the building, with the third floor vacated to ease the burden on the building’s antiquated mechanical systems — because there is no suitable replacement on the horizon.
Pierce County voters in November turned down a proposal to build a $127 million general services center on the the grounds of the former Puget Sound Hospital on Pacific Avenue in Tacoma’s South End. Financing that building wouldn’t have required new taxes, the county said, because the building’s expense would have been offset by the cost savings from consolidating most Pierce County offices into a single location.
The county currently spends $3.2 million annually to lease 150,000 square feet of offices in eight commercial buildings. Over the next quarter century, consultants project the county will spend $132 million in leasing costs for space in buildings it doesn’t own. That figure includes inflation as rents rise with the cost of living.
If the majority of county government services were consolidated in a single building, the county estimated it could save $101 million over that same period in salaries and benefits for extra employees needed because of the widely separated office sites. Pierce County pays an estimated $72,000 a year just for auto expenses for staffers traveling between the sites.
Opponents of erecting a county administration building at the Puget Sound Hospital site don’t disagree that the current setup is inefficient and that the county needs better facilities. They argue that the building proposed by County Executive Pat McCarthy was too expensive, poorly located and planned without significant citizen input.
The county now faces the task of coming up with a new solution for its office housing situation. County Councilman Derek Young said the voters spoke loudly in rejecting the building.
“We need to find out what it will cost to fix up what we’ve got and make do,” he said.
Of the 14 office structures Pierce County owns or leases for its offices, the Hess Building is most likely in the worst condition, said Bret Carlstad, Pierce County facilities management director. But others in the county’s portfolio of buildings are afflicted with similar ills.
The 57-year-old County-City Building, Pierce County government’s headquarters, needs major upgrades to its mechanical and electrical systems. Earlier this month, the boiler went out of service for several hours. The heating and cooling system is so old that county maintenance personnel have to search eBay to find replacement parts, said Steve Smith, the county’s facilities maintenance manager.
The building needs remodeling and reorganization to place its most public uses in the lower floors, county officials say. Its heating and cooling system can’t be adjusted floor-by-floor. So if a crowded County Council chambers on the building’s 10th floor becomes overheated and the thermostat is turned down, the sheriff’s offices several floors below will be freezing, building managers say.
The county’s other major office structure, the Pierce County Annex, is a ’60s vintage discount store pressed into service as an office building for such important county offices such as the auditor and assessor-treasurer. The building needs $12 million in immediate upgrades and several millions more to bring it up to modern functionality, officials say.
Tacoma architect Jim Merritt, who opposed the Pacific Avenue site, said he doesn’t doubt that the county could do better when it comes to convenience and cost, compared with its present situation. He opposed McCarthy’s plan in part because he believed it was presented as a done deal before vetting it with the citizenry. The Pacific Avenue site near the Lincoln District didn’t take advantage of downtown’s light rail, bus and commuter train connections, he said.
Jerry Gibbs, a Gig Harbor citizen activist whose Citizens for Responsible Spending got McCarthy’s building development plan placed on the ballot as a referendum, said he favors a more transparent process.
But McCarthy, who has less than a year remaining in her term as county executive and who can’t run again because of term limits, is unlikely to make a second effort to craft a building plan, county council members say.
Ron Klein, McCarthy’s spokesman, said the county executive has ordered a review of existing building leases and maintenance needs to determine an interim solution to the office issue.
That means drafting a list of deferred maintenance needs that will have to be funded shortly and getting input from building owners who lease the county space about rental renewals. Some of those building owners were major contributors to the campaign to defeat the new building plan.
Some opponents of McCarthy’s plan have suggested the county should consider buying or leasing newer existing office structures. But Carlstad, who deals with landlords seeking to lease space to the county, said Tacoma doesn’t have the kind and size of vacant structures the county needs.
John Ladenburg, who preceded McCarthy as county executive, said the county did an extensive survey of Tacoma-area offices when he was looking for new quarters for county departments. It even considered acquiring the Tacoma School District headquarters, a block from the County-City Building, and using it for county offices. But the county found no structures that met its needs.
County Councilman Dan Roach said it might be worth taking another approach to the office situation but with more input from citizens.
Does the county need a large consolidated office, he said, or would a better course be to create a smaller central office with satellite facilities located closer to citizens living farther from Tacoma like his East Pierce County district, he asked.
Gibbs, the leading opponent of McCarthy’s plan, said now that voters have rejected the new building on the Puget Sound Hospital site, the county should raze the hospital building (which costs Pierce County about $135,000 a year for security and weatherization), and sell the site. The money from that sale could be used to update and repair the county’s existing buildings, he said.
A developer could erect a multi-use residential and retail complex on the hospital site, Gibbs said. Not only would that development generate new property tax revenue, its occupants could create more business for Lincoln District stores and restaurants, Gibbs said.
Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg said she believes the idea of a new office building won’t be revived soon.
“I wouldn’t say it’s dead, but it’s asleep,” she said.
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Pierce County has long history of failed attempts to consolidate offices
Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy’s office proposal – defeated by voters in November – was the third such plan created by three different county executives to address Pierce County’s office housing needs, to cut its leasing expenses and make citizen one-stop contact with county offices doable.
Former Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg in his second term a decade ago had the county buy most of the buildings on Tacoma Avenue between South Ninth and South 11th streets. He then commissioned preliminary planning for a high-rise office structure to house consolidated county offices on that block opposite the County-City Building. The Hess Building, among others, would have been demolished to make way for that new county office building.
Ladenburg’s plan failed to pay pass muster with the Pierce County Council in an election year.
A decade earlier Pierce County Executive Doug Sutherland had the county purchase a strategic piece of property on the west side of Pacific Avenue between South 13th and South 15th streets.
That land had been the site of several historic buildings that had seen better days. Previous owners had leased them for use as pawn shops, bars and adult entertainment shops. After they were demolished, Sutherland planned to build a new county office building there. His plan never was implemented, and the county sold the property.