Real estate appraisals tend to overlook intangibles, and architectural icons are all about intangibles. Tacoma’s Old City Hall can’t be valued simply by multiplying its square footage by a rote formula. If it takes $4 million to save it, the Tacoma City Council should do exactly that.
The city has spent years valiantly trying to preserve this Tacoma landmark from demolition by neglect. It is nearing the point of no return. Its once-bustling interior is now empty and decrepit, marred by extensive flood damage. Its elegant Italian Renaissance brickwork is decaying.
City administrators have now negotiated a deal to buy the building from its owner, George Webb, whose plan to convert it to condominiums was bushwhacked by the Great Recession. The money won’t be diverted from public safety or pothole repair: It will come from a dedicated fund that can only be used for redevelopment projects like this.
A cold-eyed appraisal in January pegged the building’s market value at $1.6 million. Were this an ordinary commercial structure, and were the only important factors floor space and walls, the difference between $1.6 million and $4 million might be an unjustifiable expense.
But this is no ordinary structure. With its Italianate lines and ornaments, and grand clock tower, it looks as if it might have been spirited out of the heart of Florence. Like the copper-domed Union Station and the French chateau-styled Stadium High School, Old City Hall is part of the soul of Tacoma. Built in 1893, during Tacoma’s first great flowering, it housed the city’s municipal government for decades before passing into private hands.
Old City Hall is one of a handful of structures that unmistakably declares, “You are in Tacoma.” Like Stadium High, it embodies an era that envisioned Tacoma as a grand urban showcase above Commencement Bay.
Its demolition would be heart-breaking. In its own way, Old City Hall is to Tacoma what the Space Needle is to Seattle and what Notre Dame is to Paris.
How do you put a price tag on an architectural and historic icon? Perhaps by imagining the void that would be left if it were torn down. Anything that replaced Old City Hall would look pedestrian by comparison.
Intangibles aside, there’s at least one solid indicator that the building is in fact worth $4 million commercially. Tacoma developer Grace Pleasants said she actually offered that amount to Webb last fall.
Tacoma knows how to restore old jewels. Union Station is an example. So is the University of Washington Tacoma, which occupies stunningly rehabilitated brick warehouses of roughly the same age as Old City Hall.
There’s no plan as yet for the building’s damaged interior, but Tacoma has enough talent and imagination to pull that off. First, Old City Hall must be secured and protected – and $4 million is a bargain for the preservation of this irreplaceable landmark.