Politics & Government

Tacoma labels Old City Hall building dangerous, says roof must be repaired

Tacoma’s iconic Old City Hall building has already suffered flooding, a small fire and an economic recession that stalled its owner’s plan to convert it into condominiums or apartments.

Now, the city of Tacoma says the 120-year-old structure’s roof is failing, and building officials have reclassified it as a dangerous building so the city can intervene to make repairs.

A city building inspector issued the Old City Hall’s owners a notice July 26 informing them that the building’s condition now qualifies it as a dangerous building under city code, partly because of the condition of its roof.

Designating Old City Hall as dangerous lets the city seek an order from the Office of the Hearing Examiner allowing the city to complete the repair work itself, rather than wait for the property owner to fix the problem, said Tansy Hayward, Tacoma assistant city manager and neighborhood and community services director.

Alternatively, the city and property owner can come to an agreement on their own, bypassing some of the legal proceedings, Hayward said.

Mostly, city officials just want to make sure the repair work on Old City Hall’s roof is completed before winter, when the arrival of the rainy season could cause more water damage inside the building, she said.

“In terms of historic structures – or really any building – water getting into the interior just exacerbates deterioration,” Hayward said Thursday. “That is the fear here.”

The building’s owner, Seattle-based Stratford Company LLC, replied to the city’s complaint in writing Wednesday, saying it agrees the copper roof on Old City Hall’s northeast tower needs to be repaired and would consent to the city performing the work.

The city could then a put lien against the property at 625 Commerce Street to recover the cost of the repair, wrote Jim Grady, Stratford’s lead on acquisitions, brokerage and advisory services.

Other issues outlined in the city’s complaint — including Old City Hall’s leaning staircase, its lack of working bathrooms and insufficient fire separations between floors — will be addressed when the company finishes remodeling the building and converts it into 81 residential units, Grady wrote.

In his letter, Grady didn’t mention a timeline for completion of the project. Stratford purchased Old City Hall in 2005 with the intention of converting it into condos.

“The Stratford Company continues to pursue the necessary capital to redevelop Old City Hall into a residential project,” Grady wrote. “Our plan is to put nearly $12 million in hard costs, which will upgrade all of the core systems to current codes.”

George Webb, founder and CEO of the Stratford Company, wrote in an email that progress on the project is imminent due to the improving business environment in Tacoma, especially now that insurance giant State Farm plans to lease offices downtown.

“The arrival of State Farm is finally turning the momentum in the market and will create clear demand for residential space, as we have planned,” Webb wrote.

Hayward said the city is still formulating its response to the plan Stratford submitted Wednesday.

Hayward said city officials “don’t believe there is any risk of demolition” for Old City Hall at this point. That means it can still avoid the fate of the Luzon Building that formerly stood at 13th Street and Pacific Avenue, a neglected 1890 structure that the city razed in 2009.

With Old City Hall, “the structure is still in good condition,” Hayward said. “Everyone is interested in rehabilitating and restoring the building.”

Prior to the city’s July designation of Old City Hall as dangerous, it had been designated as derelict.

That determination came in December 2010, a few weeks after a pipe broke and flooded the property.

But under current city code, Tacoma officials can’t do much to intervene to help fix derelict properties; they can take action only on dangerous ones, Hayward said.

City officials are considering an ordinance that would define the neglect of a historic building as a public nuisance, which would allow the city to intervene earlier — before the only option becomes demolishing the building.

Tacoma City Manager T.C. Broadnax said the goal is for city officials “to be able to have those conversations and move to ensure that many of our historic buildings get the attention they need at early stages.”

Broadnax said that in the interest of getting Old City Hall’s roof repaired as soon as possible, the city decided to act under existing code rather than waiting for the City Council to pass the new ordinance.

The council is expected to consider the new historic buildings ordinance in September.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209