Tacoma’s Washington Building may see new life

City Historian Reuben McKnight in front of the historic Washington Building in downtown Tacoma. The building could become an apartment high-rise under new ownership.
City Historian Reuben McKnight in front of the historic Washington Building in downtown Tacoma. The building could become an apartment high-rise under new ownership. Staff file, 2016

A Seattle real estate firm could soon be the next owner of the historic Washington Building in downtown Tacoma.

Eventually, Unico Properties could renovate the office building into 155 apartments and five work-live spaces on the ground floor, said Pat Beard, a project manager with the city of Tacoma’s community and economic development department. The sale could close by the end of the year.

Earlier this year, the Washington Building’s owner George Webb of The Stratford Co. said an investor was under contract to buy the building and was exploring its options.

A phone message left for a Unico employee Wednesday indicated he was out of the office. Thanksgiving was Thursday. Webb could also not be reached.

Beard said the company contacted the city of Tacoma a couple of months ago to explore what it would take to renovate the structure. Beard said the company “closed out their due diligence period and let the seller know they planned to move ahead.”

Earlier this week, Unico filed papers with the city stating its intent to change the high-rise, located on the northeast corner of Pacific Avenue and South 11th Street, from its current office space to multifamily residential. It cited needed upgrades to mechanical and elevator systems, as well as reinforcements needed to prevent collapse or damage during an earthquake.

Beard said city code doesn’t require the owner to secure additional parking for tenants. Nevertheless, Beard said the company told her it plans to lease parking at “above market rate in the downtown and in garages around the facility.”

At least one other investor has considered buying the building recently. Investors from Vietnam were interested in converting the building into a mix of office and residential spaces and tried to talk Webb down from his $9.6 million asking price. They said he wouldn’t budge. Webb and other investors bought the Washington Building in 2005 for $9.6 million.

Starting around March of last year, the city tussled with Webb over building code violations, including nonworking elevators, plants growing from ledges and fractured masonry. Webb also once owned Old City Hall, which the city bought for $4 million last year — $2.4 million more than it was appraised for.

Scandinavian American Bank started construction on the 17-story Washington Building in 1919. It “was designed to be a very spectacular commercial building. Banks often wanted to show off their economic vitality,” said city of Tacoma historic preservation officer Reuben McKnight in May.

The building opened in 1925 as the second-tallest in the Northwest. Today, it is the third-tallest in Tacoma at 237 feet, behind Wells Fargo Plaza and Hotel Murano, according to building data website Emporis.

While some old buildings are constructed of bricks, the Washington Building is different. A photo from 1920 shows workers placing 32-ton steel beams for the structural framework.

Sue Coffman, a building official with the city of Tacoma, said Unico’s structural engineer believes the steel frame will bear the brunt of any shaking during earthquakes that often happen in the Pacific Northwest. Coffman noted the Washington Building withstood shaking during the 6.8-magnitude Nisqually earthquake in 2001 with “no damage.”

“This is a structural frame that really supports the building,” Coffman said.

In May, Coffman said Webb had addressed several code violations in the Washington Building, including cracks in masonry and vegetation growing on the outside. The elevators were fixed for a time but remain a regular problem, she said.

“We’ve been trying to have someone check on them on a regular basis,” Coffman said of the lifts. “As soon as we don’t pay attention to it, then we get a call that there’s another problem.”

McKnight said Wednesday that if Unico’s plan works, more people will live in Tacoma’s downtown, giving it the feel of a city with a 24-hour cycle, as there was 60 or 70 years ago.

“It should encourage additional opportunities for downtown and encourage businesses to open,” he said.

Apartment construction in Pierce County is at record levels. In 2017 through 2019, more than 3,500 apartment units could open countywide, according to Dupree+Scott Apartment Advisors.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Unico Properties was based in New Jersey.

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