Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Is the city making a mistake at Valhalla Hall?

Valhalla Hall on Martin Luther King Jr. Way is probably going to be mostly demolished to make way for a mixed use apartment building, some of which will be for low-income residents.
Valhalla Hall on Martin Luther King Jr. Way is probably going to be mostly demolished to make way for a mixed use apartment building, some of which will be for low-income residents.

“This isn’t an easy conclusion for me to come to. I tend to hang in there until the very end.”

Those are the sentiments of well-known historian and former Tacoma historic preservation officer Michael Sullivan, speaking early Monday about the fate of Valhalla Hall on Hilltop’s Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

For Sullivan, the words are particularly tough to stomach. And for good reason.

As The News Tribune’s Kate Martin reported last week, a city-led project that hopes to build 24 apartments (including nine for low-income residents), along with two “work-live” ground-floor retail spots at the currently boarded up Valhalla Hall has changed significantly since I first reported it in March.

While city officials, including Tacoma’s Housing Division Manager Carey Jenkins, have billed the project between Earnest S Brazill Street and South 13th Street as an “adaptive reuse” of the space, engineering realities at a building that’s been essentially gutted and the mushrooming price of construction have since made visions of hanging on to much at Valhalla Hall seem like wishful thinking.

The latest iteration of the project calls for all exterior walls, the roof and several interior features to be demolished at the building which the city has owned since 2014. Gone, too, will be Valhalla Hall’s facade, replaced with a replica that will pay homage to the building’s history, which dates to the turn of the 20th century as a meeting hall for Tacoma’s Swedish-American community.

To create a fake and try to connect your project to (Tacoma’s history) … just isn’t a good practice. It doesn’t make any sense, especially if it’s costing more money to do it.

Tacoma historian Michael Sullivan

So, faced with a choice of tearing down most of the building — which city officials point out is is not on any historic register — and replicating it as part of a $7 million dollar housing project, or starting from scratch with a brand-new building — Sullivan, reluctantly, leans toward the latter.

“I think it’s wasteful to spend extra money to try to replicate it. I think that’s just bad practice. I don’t think you gain anything,” Sullivan continues. “To create a fake, and try to connect your project (to Tacoma’s history) … just isn’t a good practice. It doesn’t make any sense, especially if it’s costing more money to do it.”

Sullivan tells me he worries such a project would set a dangerous preservation precedent, one that the city and developers could use in the future as an example of adaptive reuse — when the reality is anything but.

“The approach they’re taking is a new building, let’s face it,” Sullivan says. “I worry that this gets done and then it gets pointed to as good preservation, and it’s not. … It sets something up that others are going to point to and say, ‘If this is the most recent project, then let’s just copy that.’ 

Sullivan isn’t the only local expressing concern over the project. Developer Kevin Grossman, who’s still working to renovate the Kellogg-Sicker and the Pochert buildings on Hilltop, feels that the escalating price tag of the Valhalla Hall project and what he perceives as a lack of community involvement in reaching this point raise red flags.

For the same amount of money, Grossman argues, Valhalla Hall could be renovated back to its original use and even more units of low-income housing could be built at another location along MLK.

“My concern is that for the same amount of money you could make a lot more difference on the Hilltop, if it had been thought through better,” Grossman says. He’s urging the city’s economic development department to step back and get more input from the community before moving forward with the $7 million effort.

It’ frustrating when you have similar endpoints, but have a really challenging time figuring out how to have an open dialogue.

Developer Kevin Grossman

In defending the project, Jenkins points to a “spectrum” of adaptive reuse. And while he understands some in the community may have been taken aback by how the project has changed since it was originally hatched, he believes the city’s original goals still can be met.

These include transforming the building into something that’s “much more usable,” increasing the city’s stock of affordable housing, providing an opportunity for transit-oriented development when light rail reaches Hilltop, and spurring more live-work spaces in the city.

“The unfortunate thing is, as we got into the development, we realized that in trying to keep our costs in line and not having it expand too much where the project becomes infeasible, we had to figure out ways (to keep costs down), with an eye on the overall budget,” Jenkins says. “We thought this was a decent enough compromise between the realities of the cost and the desire to keep some sort of legacy with the building.”

When it comes to critiques of the effort, Jenkins adds: “While we might disagree about this context, we certainly use that to focus our attention on having a project that will be successful.”

Perhaps the silver lining in the emerging drama over what to make of Valhalla Hall is in the common ground. Everyone agrees that the boarded-up building on Martin Luther King Way should be given new life, in one way or another. Everyone agrees that Hilltop deserves a brighter, less blighted future. And everyone recognizes the growing need for more affordable housing in the city.

But what’s become clear is that trying to accomplish all of these noble objectives in one project at Valhalla Hall is proving more contentious than anyone imagined.