Politics & Government

Pierce County's plan to raze hospital draws opposition

Pierce County’s plan to tear down the former Puget Sound Hospital is drawing opposition from preservationists who say the building has historic value and the county should try to save it.

The county’s own preservation commission recommends it consider remodeling the old hospital interior “while allowing the building’s iconic facade to remain a character-defining element of its neighborhood.”

But county officials say it’s not feasible to renovate the structure at 3580 Pacific Ave. They want to raze it and put up a new county administration building on the 13-acre site.

The County Council is expected to vote this fall whether to approve the project, estimated to cost between $70 million and $80 million.

Caroline Swope, chairwoman of the county’s Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission, said the county hasn’t demonstrated why demolition is necessary or addressed the impact on the neighborhood near Lincoln High School.

The commission – a seven-member advisory panel – believes an administration building that combines portions of the old hospital with new construction “would be a unique, noteworthy addition to the county,” Swope wrote in one of her two recent letters to county officials.

But Bret Carlstad, the county’s facilities management director, said it’s not economically feasible to reuse the hospital. He said it likely would cost more to renovate the building and bring it up to code than to build a similar-sized structure from scratch.

The hospital’s wide corridors and high operating costs also make it impractical to reuse, he said.

The county already tried to sell the facility, without success.

“Now it’s just a shell of a building,” Carlstad said. “It’s a liability just to be there.”

In 2012, a state agency said the four-story, brick section of the hospital built in 1926 was eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. That determination came two years after the county closed the hospital and began shutting down and removing boilers and other building systems to save money.

Historic Tacoma, a preservation group, criticized the county in April for not informing neighbors of the planned demolition. It is concerned about the impact it would have on the surrounding neighborhood, especially if the site is left vacant.

“Maybe it will get people to think, ‘How can we not do this again?’ ” said Sharon Winters, co-founder of Historic Tacoma. “I don’t expect to stop demolition at this point.”

Winters learned about the demolition plans from Leslie Young, a real estate agent who lives a dozen blocks from the site.

“It’s a beautiful building,” said Young, a former Historic Tacoma board member. “In my opinion, it shouldn’t be demolished.”

The hospital site consists of two main buildings. The original 1926 building was designed by the firm Hill & Mock, which also designed McCarver Elementary School and other Tacoma buildings.

The original structure – the focus of preservation efforts – was a general service hospital. A second building was constructed as a tuberculosis sanitorium in 1951.

The county bought the facility for $2.44 million in 2000 after the company that ran Puget Sound Hospital went bankrupt.

The purchase was intended to preserve mental health care, including in-patient psychiatric services. But owning the facility and providing mental health care proved too costly for the county. The state now contracts with a private company to handle mental health services for Pierce County.

Preservation groups also voiced concern when a firm working for the county erroneously reported in February that there was no evidence of historic importance at the property.

Reuben McKnight, the city’s historic preservation officer, noticed the omission and had the initial checklist corrected.

County officials said they weren’t aware previously that the 1926 building was eligible for listing on the National Register.

The environmental checklist now notes the determination by the state Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation. But no proposals have surfaced to put the building on the National Register or the city’s register.

“If there are alternatives (to demolition) that can be considered, we prefer that,” McKnight said. “We don’t have very many old medical facilities left around Tacoma.”

In late March, the county notified 82 neighbors about the planned demolition. County officials also met with the Lincoln Area Neighbors group at its request in mid-April. About 20 people turned out, asking questions about what will happen to the site. But they didn’t voice objections to razing the old hospital, said Melanie Halsan, the county’s project coordinator.

The city of Tacoma’s decision on the demolition permit application is expected this month.

The developer of the county administration building project would pay the $1.5 million to $2 million cost of tearing down the hospital. County Executive Pat McCarthy recently approved a committee recommendation of Wright Runstad & Co., of Seattle, as the building’s developer.

If the County Council doesn’t approve the project, the hospital would remain unoccupied until the council budgets money for the demolition, Carlstad said. County officials fully intend to raze the building, no matter what, he said, noting that they could always hold the vacant land and sell it later.

Both Swope and Young said county officials haven’t talked enough to neighborhood groups about the proposed demolition.

Young wishes the county would reuse the hospital. But she said there doesn’t appear to be much chance of saving the facility.

“It’s just disappointing,” she said.