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Most of Valhalla Hall will be torn down for MLK redevelopment

A conceptual drawing of what Valhalla Hall might look like after it is redeveloped into lofts and apartments.
A conceptual drawing of what Valhalla Hall might look like after it is redeveloped into lofts and apartments. Courtesy

A project once lauded as a model for reuse of a historic building will mostly use a wrecking ball instead.

All exterior walls, the roof and several interior features of the Tacoma Hilltop’s Valhalla Hall will be demolished to make way for 24 apartments, nine of them for low-income residents. An additional two ground-floor retail spots will be reserved for “work-live” spaces where tenants can reside and do business.

Redevelopment of the property could cost up to $7 million, said Tacoma’s Housing Division Manager Carey Jenkins. Although the city will try to keep “as much of the structure in place” as possible, “it’s going to be a significant rehabilitation effort,” Jenkins said.

Seismic building codes say there must be space between buildings to allow for sway during an earthquake, he said. And because the building directly abuts those on either side, the fire code’s rules on wall thickness come into play.

The three-story social hall, built in 1906 for for Tacoma’s Swedish-American community, has sat vacant since 2009. The city of Tacoma bought it in 2014 in a foreclosure sale and deeded it to the Tacoma Community Development Authority.

Among the goals in buying Valhalla Hall, according to a document seeking developers for the project, was “for the purpose of demonstrating the viability of adaptive reuse of heritage structures in Tacoma.”

The agency also sought architects for the project in July 2015. In the pitch the city wrote: “The intent for the front facade on Martin Luther King Jr Way is to have it retain its heritage appearance while upgraded and beautified.”

Instead, the facade will be demolished, Jenkins said. A replica facade will be constructed to maintain the building’s street presence.

A city news release in January lauded the development and others as prime examples of “adaptive reuse” of a historic building, and asked residents to attend an open house about several projects.

Jenkins told The News Tribune in March that Valhalla Hall was the very definition of adaptive reuse: “Taking the old, something that’s a project or property that’s functionally obsolete and turning it into a use that is needed in the marketplace.”

While Jenkins said he still agrees with that statement, he said the term “adaptive reuse,” in which a developer uses the majority of an old building for a new purpose, is no longer appropriate for the Valhalla Hall project.

Jenkins said he and others at the city realized after March that much more demolition would be required to stay under the $7 million budget.

“As you know, we’ve seen significant (cost) increases, not just in materials but really labor,” Jenkins said. “It’s driving up costs all over Puget Sound. We are competing with Seattle in terms of the labor market.”

Though Valhalla Hall is more than a century old, it is not on any historic register. Jenkins said too many changes have been made by prior owners over the years for it to qualify.

“This is an obsolete building,” Jenkins said. “If we did not acquire that building out of foreclosure, that building would be boarded up and abandoned with no possible use for the next several years.”

Construction will start in September, and will require abatement of some asbestos material and demolition of the facade and walls, Jenkins said.

Rehabilitation of old buildings can be an opportunity for cities to include economic diversity within a neighborhood, said Margaret O’Neal, a senior manager with the Preservation Green Lab, part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C.

“At the end of the day we advocate for the reuse of buildings because it’s environmentally smart, and it provides social and economic resilience for communities,” O’Neal said. “Reuse is better than starting from scratch.”

It’s a much-needed investment in an area of Tacoma that’s had little of it, Jenkins said. The Tacoma Link Light Rail through the Hilltop along Martin Luther King Jr. Way could start construction in 2018.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542, @KateReports

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