Owner of Tacoma's Old City Hall plans to repair water damage

Old City Hall owner George Webb told the Tacoma City Council that the first phase of repair work on the water-damaged historic landmark will take more than a month.

“I’m told it will be approximately 45 days to have all the materials, drywall, carpet, et cetera, out of the building,” he said at the council’s study session, held Tuesday at another historic downtown building, the Pantages Theater.

“I don’t have a lot to say about the long term,” Webb said. The water damage repair work “does give us an opportunity to reposition the property moving forward.”

Webb’s update to the City Council was the first time he’s appeared before the body since the Nov. 24 flood at Old City Hall on Commerce Street. The day before Thanksgiving, a sprinkler pipe thawed after the week’s cold weather and sent 30,000 gallons of water through the building that has been mostly empty since 2005.

The building is facing a foreclosure auction on Jan. 7, and Webb said negotiations with mortgage holder Union Bank continue.

Councilman Jake Fey asked Webb if he planned to remain the owner.

“That is our intention, in the short term at least,” Webb said. “We want to see the next phase of the building.”

Mayor Marilyn Strickland introduced Webb and said “the spirit of this is not a public flogging.”

She asked him if the building was in danger of being demolished, a question that invoked memories of the Luzon, a historic building razed last year after decades of neglect.

“That would be a huge mistake from my point of view. The building is very strong structurally. There’s no reason for people to have that fear. I don’t know how that got started,” he said.

“It’s Tacoma,” Strickland replied.

City historic preservation officer Reuben McKnight said in an interview that he has toured the building and didn’t see fundamental structural damage, though there are maintenance issues that include a leaky roof.

Webb said fixing water damage at Old City Hall required a different approach than what was done at the United Way building on Pacific Avenue, which also suffered damage from a broken water pipe over the Thanksgiving holiday. The United Way building was remodeled in the 1990s and hazardous material was removed. Old City Hall still has asbestos and lead paint.

“It wasn’t in anyone’s interest to go in there and rip things out immediately after the traumatic event,” Webb said.

Councilman Spiro Manthou thanked Webb for repairing the building.

“A lot of people would like (the council) to step in, but that’s not our responsibility,” he said, adding “I’d rather fix potholes” than spend money fixing a private building. “I appreciate you not forcing us to go in that direction.”

Councilman David Boe, who met with Webb earlier Tuesday, said the issues at Old City Hall went beyond private property ownership.

“I might fill a few less potholes if we could make sure that Old City Hall is back on all cylinders,” he said. “That’s an issue that’s a civic one. It’s a private building, but it has civic importance. We need to think of all different avenues to try to bring this back.”

“Oddly enough, the pipe bursting may be the best thing that happened to Old City Hall, because now we’re paying attention,” Strickland said.

Kathleen Cooper: 253-597-8546 kathleen.cooper@thenewstribune.com