Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Old City Hall’s future needs creative thinking

The city of Tacoma bought Old City Hall for $4 million this year and is now soliciting proposals from developers on how to use it.
The city of Tacoma bought Old City Hall for $4 million this year and is now soliciting proposals from developers on how to use it. Staff photographer

So Tacoma owns Old City Hall.

Now what?

That, of course, is the $4 million question prompted by the City Council’s decision to purchase the iconic 122-year-old building in June. And question is bound to get more consequential once the city adds the cost of immediate safety repairs to that purchase price.

This week we — collectively, as a city — embarked on the next step of the process: figuring out what the future holds for a building that has defined our skyline for over a century.

Deciding to purchase Old City Hall wasn’t a tough decision, even at a price that’s more than twice what the building appraised for earlier this year. A frustrating and irresponsible pattern of neglect by the building’s previous owner, The Stratford Co., coupled with Old City Hall’s historic value, made saving it — at just about any reasonable cost — the right decision.

Tacoma’s director of community and economic development, Ricardo Noguera, was one of the forces behind the decision to buy Old City Hall. As Noguera recently told me, “I would not have stuck my neck out for any other property in downtown.”

But the decision that comes next for Old City Hall may be equally as important.

On Tuesday, the city solicited proposals from developers for the “adaptive reuse” of the building. Packed with typical economic development jargon, the city’s request cites a desire for projects that “create synergy with surrounding development, maximize tax revenues, recoup its investment, result in new jobs and draw pedestrian traffic to the area.”

All this means it’s time to start thinking seriously about the options. Noguera tells me he expects the city will receive about half a dozen proposals from private developers, and that within four to six months a deal — a sale, lease or lease-to-own agreement — will be made.

He expects whatever plan the city signs off on to come to fruition within the next two years.

The importance of reinventing Old City Hall cannot be overstated. With work currently underway at the Winthrop, McMenamins expected to begin development of the Tacoma Elks Temple as early as next March, and Link light rail soon to expand through the area, the stars finally seem to be aligning for this up-and-coming part of downtown.

If ever there was a time to think creatively, this is it.

Some ideas for the building are practical in nature. And, to some extent, a need for seismic upgrades may limit the possibilities. A mixed-use space with retail on the bottom floors and residential space up above, to take advantage of Old City Hall’s stunning views, will almost certainly be in the mix. Given the money Tacoma has already thrown into saving the historic building, a relatively quick return on investment is a priority.

“I just would like to have stable ownership,” City Councilman and architect David Boe told me when I first start prodding him for his hopes and dreams for the building.

I persisted. After all, Boe — whose office is right across the street from Old City Hall — has a history of thinking outside the box when it comes to the building, having once floated the idea of locating Tacoma’s Center for Urban Waters there.

“My wildest dreams are that it’s safe, and restored on the exterior, and it’s on the tax rolls,” he continued, much to my dismay.

Finally, Boe started getting to the good stuff: “Maybe it’s full of thriving incubator businesses, and maybe some tech businesses, and maybe a brewpub or two.”

Now we’re talking.

Next I called Tacoma architectural historian Michael Sullivan, also known for his visionary qualities.

“I think you’d be hard pressed to find a reuse that doesn’t work there,” Sullivan said. “I’m excited to see what ideas developers may come up with. … I think you’re going to get a number of very shrewd and smart people that take a cut at it. I wouldn’t be surprised if you have a bit of a fight over it, frankly.”

While Sullivan remains open to just about any project that makes good use of Old City Hall — short of “condo-izing” the building into a development of entirely private homes — he seemed particularly intrigued by the possibility of some sort of entertainment destination.

“Lenders love hotels,” he said, for example. “There was a time when (hotels) weren’t very popular projects, but at least right now, they’re just roaring off.”

What Old City Hall will become remains anyone’s guess, but creative thinking is exactly what Tacoma’s most iconic building deserves.