Failed ideas for Old City Hall included space elevator HQ

Geeking out on Tacoma’s Old City Hall as architectural gem

Reuben McKnight, Historic Preservation Officer for the City of Tacoma, talks lovingly about the Italian villa style brick building built in 1893 to be the city’s “grand old municipal building.” McKnight considers it the town’s jewel.
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Reuben McKnight, Historic Preservation Officer for the City of Tacoma, talks lovingly about the Italian villa style brick building built in 1893 to be the city’s “grand old municipal building.” McKnight considers it the town’s jewel.

Looks like Tacoma's Old City Hall won't be the headquarters for a company hoping to build a space elevator on the moon.

Closer to Earth, the Tacoma landmark also won't be a “tech and innovation hub” with McMenamins managing 18 hotel rooms with a food and beverage venue.

The city has decided not to proceed with either of the two ideas it received after asking late last year for proposals to revitalize Old City Hall, 625 Commerce St.

After reviewing the pitches, “We had more questions than answers,” said Elly Walkowiak, assistant director for the city’s Economic Development Department.

“We should have asked for more specific information to give us a better comfort level.”

The city plans to cast a wider net, likely in May.

Summer will mark the third year Tacoma has owned Old City Hall. The City Council voted in 2015 to pay $4 million to its previous owner, which wasn’t maintaining the aging structure.

The 125th anniversary of the building’s completion is this year.

Like many immigrants who came to the United States from distant shores, parts of Old City Hall arrived on ships. Those bricks, which once served as ballast, now form part of the iconic building’s eight-foot-thick foundation.

The Age of Sail had just passed when Old City Hall rose along Tacoma’s skyline, but such ships remained regular features on Commencement Bay and Puget Sound during and after the building’s construction.

Old City Hall’s clock tower tapers inward, giving it the dizzying illusion of added height. From this lofty perch, one would have an unobstructed view of the Port of Tacoma and Commencement Bay.

Space elevator

One of the ideas for the building’s future was pitched by LiftPort Group, which wanted the landmark for its headquarters.

“It’s an amazing property. It’s an amazing asset,” LiftPort president Michael Laine said.

According to the company’s website, it’s researching technology that will create a space elevator based on the moon, and hoped to convert Old City Hall into Tacoma’s Space and Technology Center.

LiftPort currently has zero paid employees, but Laine said the company could have up to eight by the end of summer.

“Our company is filled with intangible assets,” Laine wrote in LiftPort’s pitch for Old City Hall. “We are an ‘idea factory’ cranking out intellectual property.”

While the company may create other patentable technologies, its main aim is a working space elevator.

Several countries are researching the idea, but materials are not strong or flexible enough for an Earth-based version. But it could work on the moon with its lower gravity, Laine says.

Once installed, a lunar elevator would allow inexpensive transport of materials from the moon’s surface to docking stations for spacecraft along a ribbon connected to a distant counterweight.

A LiftPort headquarters at Old City Hall would have included offices, conference rooms for the public, community space for educational programs and a hacker studio with a “cryptocurrency center” and many other concepts.

“Our investors leaped at the chance to have a physical, tangible asset as part of our company mix,” said Laine, who when asked about those backers told The News Tribune, “I can’t talk to you about my investors yet.”

In 2007, the state’s investment watchdog agency, the Department of Financial Institutions, told Laine to stop selling shares in LiftPort without a license.

Three years later he agreed to cease, to avoid paying fines for breaking state law, according to documents from the agency.

LiftPort’s dealings with Tacoma contained one other financial wrinkle.

The city required applicants to each submit a check for $30,000 to show they were serious about renovating Old City Hall.

LiftPort’s proposal came with an unusual backing: A screenshot of Laine’s cryptocurrency holdings, a mix of Bitcoin, Litecoin and Ethereum valued at $20,362 at the time.

McMenamins partnership and tech incubator

A more traditional proposal came from Heritage Group Land Co., which had the backing of Portland-based hotelier Mike McMenamin.

When Vashon Island company’s managing partner, Dick Sontgerath, toured Old City Hall he was struck by the third floor, gutted though it was by the previous owner.

“It’s the brick and timbers and light — it’s the sexiness of the space,” he said. “You go up there and, wow.”

Heritage’s resume includes several renovated structures, including Tacoma’s Cornerstone Building, the World Trade Center building on Pacific Avenue and a few in Seattle and other locations.

In Tacoma, it wanted to create the Old City Hall Innovation Center, which would have included several floors of office space and 18 hotel rooms and “multiple food and beverage venues” managed by McMenamins.

“(The McMenamins partnership) wound up just fitting in with the tech innovation center just beautifully,” Sontgerath said.

“A successful innovation center will take advantage of and retain local talent, which will in turn create jobs and grow the economy for the city of Tacoma,” states Heritage’s proposal to the city.

Sontgerath said he doesn’t know whether Heritage will reapply when the city again seeks ideas for Old City.

“But I hope so,” he said. “We will just have to see where we’re at and if we can do it justice relative to the time commitment it will take.”

What’s next for Old City Hall

When Tacoma sought pitches for Old City Hall last year, companies had 30 days to respond, with a deadline between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Proposals were to be given points based on meeting specific criteria. Last year’s process sought only hospitality or office uses for the building, such as a tech center. The upcoming offer will be broader.

Proponents will have at least 60 days under a process that will allow more flexibility, Walkowiak said.

“In this case ... we will not restrict the uses other than what the zoning allows,” Walkowiak said. “We would open it up to residential uses, mixed use development, office and, of course, for employment-generating opportunities, hospitality and an array of uses.”

With that type of process three years ago the city found four parties interested in Old City Hall.

Back then, the city selected McMenamins, which pitched 60 hotel rooms; bars showcasing the old jailhouse, clock tower and rooftop greenhouse; a rooftop restaurant; soaking pools; community/private meeting and event spaces; and a gift shop.

The Portland developer typically finishes one project at a time. In late 2015, about the time it bid on the Old City Hall project, McMenamins was capping off its work at the historic Anderson School in Bothell. The city of Tacoma wanted to place deadlines on the Old City Hall work, to ensure it would start after the Elks Lodge’s work finished.

But as McMenamins continued to hustle for private investors in the Elks project, the deadline for the building’s completion kept getting pushed out. Eventually the city and McMenamins agreed to put the Old City Hall project on “pause,” which allowed the city to court other developers.

That pause was nearly two years ago, and the city is still looking for an ideal tenant and eventual buyer.

For the upcoming request for interest, Walkowiak said,the city will ask “more pointed questions” than it did before about proposers. It also will work more closely with the historic preservation community to get its request in front of developers with a track record of success.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542, @KateReports