County office plan pencils out, even at $127 million

Pierce County leaders hit a solid triple when they planned a new nine-story building to consolidate 19 county divisions on Pacific Avenue near Tacoma’s Lincoln business district. It might have been a home run with more coaching – but there’s room to remedy that as they bring the $127 million project to fruition.

It might seem counterintuitive, but the hefty cost is not the problem. That’s because the plan would enable the county to:

These and other savings add up to about $8.4 million a year – more than what the county would pay for its new digs. Under the financing plan, a private developer would build and furnish the structure, then lease it at a fixed rate to the county for 30 years – at which point the county would assume full ownership of it in “like new” condition.

For possible further savings, the county could sell the Pierce County Annex near Costco, which now houses the auditor and assessor-treasurer’s office. That would avert the considerable cost of deferred maintenance.

This is the kind of creative thinking we like to see in government. Our reservations about the plan have to do with process, not price.

From the outset, County Executive Pat McCarthy and her team focused on three sites, all owned by the county. One was downtown by the existing County-City Building. The second was the Annex. The third was the winner, the site of the old Puget Sound Hospital on Pacific Avenue a mile or so south of downtown.

Maybe these were the best places imaginable, and maybe any rational process would have inevitably led them to the Puget Sound Hospital location. But we’ll never know; the scope was narrowed too early. County leaders do not appear to have ever stepped back and asked themselves — or anyone in the private sector — if there were other logical alternatives.

Nor did they go out of their way to talk to some people with immense expertise in urban planning, design and culture. They overlooked, for example, the urban studies program at the University of Washington Tacoma. The UWT’s mission as an urban-serving university makes it a rich source of ideas for a project of this nature.

The plan is too far down the road now to start over with broader panel of advisors. And the hospital site, if not the best possible location, seems at least a good one. It promises, among other things, to strengthen struggling businesses in the Lincoln District.

But county leaders should seek out more expert help as the plan crystallizes. It’s not clear, for example, how to realize the potential synergies between the new building, the Lincoln and McKinley Hill districts, and downtown.

That’s a perfect challenge for smart people who think about urban ecologies seven days a week – even if they aren’t county employees.