When they bought the old Durobilt building in Tacoma’s Dome District, Jori Adkins and Rick Semple readily admit their business strategy might not have been the shrewdest.
They bought it because they felt sorry for it.
“It looked like a little gnome crouched down there,” Adkins said. “We wanted to give it some pride back.”
The old dormered building – built in 1937 as a lumber company headquarters then used for decades as a furniture and upholstery store – had been overwhelmed by transportation changes near the Dome.
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The $25 million overpass that lifted East D Street over the Burlington Northern main line in 2010 cut so close to the building that pedestrians now can reach out and touch the roof fascia as they walk by.
In front, along Puyallup Avenue, the raised sidewalk made the building look as if it were sitting in a hole.
Adkins and Semple bought the property for $100,000 and jacked it up three feet – enough to bring the front door back to sidewalk level.
Now they’re remodeling it – mostly by themselves – and plan to rent it out: retail on the bottom floors and maybe an apartment or two on top.
“It wasn’t like we needed this property,” Semple said. “We had plenty to do. We just didn’t want it to be left deserted or torn down.”
Maybe like foxes.
The Dome District — boxed in by railroads and freeways — has long been known as a place to pass through rather than spend time.
That’s starting to change, driven by people like Adkins and Semple, who see the hodgepodge of industrial buildings from the 1920s and 1930s as the seeds from which to grow Tacoma’s next hip and happening place.
“It’s kind of an up-and-coming area in Tacoma,” said Ken Thoburn, the owner of Wingman Brewers, which moved its brewing operations and taproom to the Dome District in April. “I think what’s been happening on Pacific Avenue is kind of turning the corner onto Puyallup. It’s getting new businesses, and more cool stuff is happening all the time.”
Counting Wingman Brewers, five new businesses opened on Puyallup Avenue last summer. Janice McNeal, vice president of the Dome District Development Group, said 22 businesses have signed new leases in Freighthouse Square, the district’s visual anchor, in the past three months.
An upscale men’s grooming salon called MANdustrial opened Aug. 3 in a historic brick building across from Freighthouse Square with the motto: “Where a guy can get a good haircut by beautiful women and have a beer!”
From a business standpoint, Thoburn said, what attracted him to the location was the fact that it’s close to public transportation and rents are relatively cheap.
“The cost of the space allows us to grow and expand a lot faster than we would have been able to otherwise,” he said. “Being near the light rail, the bus station, the Greyhound station, is just great.”
And Thoburn said he likes an intangible aspect: the energy and entrepreneurial spirit he’s found there.
“It’s a lot of fun to work with everybody in the area,” he said. “We see a lot of folks taking interest down here and seeing that there’s a lot of potential for what used to be thought of as kind of an industrial area and a place people didn’t want to go.”
Adkins and Semple were early pioneers in the Dome District rehab. They bought their first property there in 1999 when they purchased a 1924 Puyallup Avenue gas station, where they now live. It’s distinctive on the street for its restored black and white checkered front.
Since then, they’ve gradually worked their way down the street, buying relic buildings no one else had much interest in and turning them into brightly painted, well lit businesses: a bike shop, an art gallery, studios and a garden shop.
With the addition of the Durobilt building, they now own the entire 300 block on Puyallup Avenue.
They’re not in it for money, they say. Their interest is mostly aesthetic.
Semple is a retired commercial photographer, and Adkins spent 30 years as a landscape architect, working with other historic neighborhoods in Boston and Seattle.
“We love old buildings, and we like interesting neighborhoods,” Semple said. “We want to see the history of this area preserved.”
Joe Lawson, who last month moved his auction house, Hamilton’s Antique and Estate Auctions Gallery, to the old Stevens & Vetter building at 505 Puyallup Ave., said he feels the same way.
“I liked the look of the building,” Lawson said. “They’re looking for kind of an antique, arts-and-crafts character, so it seemed like a perfect fit for us. We bring that antiquity look to the location.”
Lawson said he’s counting on spin-off business from the new LeMay-America’s Car Museum, which opened across the street from the Dome in June.
The car museum’s backers promise to attract 425,000 paying visitors a year, and Lawson is betting that people who like antique cars will be interested in other antiques, too.
As a neighborhood, the Dome District has suffered for decades from large-scale public construction.
Many of the original buildings were leveled when Interstate 5 was built in the 1960s. Then in the 1980s, more of the neighborhood was razed for the Tacoma Dome. There was the D Street overpass, which sank the Durobilt Building, and, most recently, passenger rail construction. Sound Transit’s D-to-M Street project bisected the district with a new railroad line for commuter traffic to South Tacoma and Lakewood, tracks that in a few years also will carry Amtrak’s passenger trains.
Now that the construction dust has cleared, the Dome District is the regional transportation and mass transit hub of the South Sound.
The volume of people passing through is more than enough to support shops, bars and restaurants, Adkins said, but the keys to a real neighborhood are preserving historical character and making it a place where people want to live.
“It’s got to start with grass-roots,” Adkins said. “The neighborhood has to prove it can work before a developer can come and build something.”