Things old will be new again in Tacoma

From the editorial board

McMenamins is proposing to develop Tacoma’s Old City Hall into a hotel across the street from its existing project at the Elks Lodge.
McMenamins is proposing to develop Tacoma’s Old City Hall into a hotel across the street from its existing project at the Elks Lodge. Staff file, November

The plan for Portland-based McMenamins to buy Old City Hall and develop it into one of its signature hotels reflects at least two things, and they’re both good.

First, it shows that the savvy McMenamins owners recognize the potential of downtown Tacoma beyond the investment they’ve already made across Commerce Street in the century-old Elks Temple. They’ve already started renovating that Beaux Arts building into a hotel, eatery and entertainment center. It’s due to open in 2017.

When a respected company like McMenamins doubles down so significantly in a city, it’s sure to create interest among developers and investors who otherwise might not have considered projects in Tacoma.

The agreement also reflects the wisdom of the Tacoma City Council in shelling out $4 million to buy Old City Hall earlier this year to prevent it from deteriorating further. The 122-year-old building — the original Tacoma icon that graced scores of postcards in the city’s early years — had fallen on tough times recently, including being flooded when frozen pipes burst. But the Italian Renaissance-style structure has good bones, and it’s one of the most distinctive buildings in the Northwest.

The City Council had to save the building, even at such a high price and even if it doesn’t recoup its investment. The fact that three other suitors besides McMenamins submitted proposals for developing it confirms that the council made the right call to protect Old City Hall.

Future Tacomans will be grateful to McMenamins and today’s civic leaders for ensuring that both buildings will continue to be part of the city’s cultural landscape for many years to come.

Tacomans should also celebrate the generosity of developer Fred Roberson for the legacy he plans to leave to the city.

Roberson bought the Washington National Guard Armory in 2013 for $950,000 and has spent about $1 million restoring the spacious 107-year-old building. He’s already got it in good enough condition to host events as different as dance performances, circus acts, opera rehearsals and roller derbies, and it has spaces big enough to host expos like the Northwest Cannabis Classic. The new Tacoma Actors Repertory Theater has taken up residence in the former mess hall.

The nonprofit Broadway Center — which manages the city-owned Pantages and Rialto theaters — is handling rentals for the Armory, located at 715 S. 11th St. Eventually, Roberson says, he plans to give it to the center as his gift to Tacoma.

What a gift that already is. Thanks to Roberson for his generosity and civic spirit and to McMenamins for recognizing the investment opportunities in Tacoma’s historic buildings.