A recent News Tribune editorial in support of constructing a new Pierce County administration building asked, “What’s the alternative?” As the elected leader of one department slated to occupy the proposed structure, I’m pleased to reply.
County Executive Pat McCarthy started with the best of intentions, and even with a good process.
She called together the heads of a dozen departments in what was then called “the Annex project” to explore various options to get the Public Works Department out of leased space at two main locations and into an improved facility at the County Annex on South 35th Street, just north of Costco in Tacoma.
This well-known site is where tax, license, permitting and election services are offered conveniently to all Pierce County residents by the auditor, assessor-treasurer and Planning & Land Services (PALS).
The biggest revelation from the Annex project is how difficult it would be to replicate the convenience of the annex, with its 650 parking spaces, proximity to Interstate 5 and easy first-floor access to the most commonly needed services of county government.
The shame is that for many years the facilities department has not received funding for $2.1 million in deferred maintenance to this facility. That upgrade — far less than the $10 million to $12 million figure quoted to justify the new building — will make it a more attractive, effective place for both the public and our staff to seek and provide these important services.
Why abandon this workhorse facility instead of giving it some TLC?
After a number of annex project meetings where input from departments was welcome, I observed a shift to a much more “top down” approach. The 63-20 lease-back financing plan would be used, meaning we’d most likely be working with a developer, architect and contractor from King County, not Pierce County (which proved to be the case).
The site would not be the annex but rather the old Puget Sound Hospital on Pacific Avenue. And not just a few departments, but all except the sheriff, courts and prosecutor would come together, plus the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. Furthermore, what had grown to a 330,000 square foot building — nearly four times the size of the annex — would be largely financed by reducing the staff available to serve a growing county!
At this point, I told the executive and Pierce County Council that I could no longer support what the annex project had become. Members of the public have since joined in questioning how we jumped from a modest plan to upgrade the annex and make room for another department to moving a dozen departments into a new building costing $400 per square foot, double the typical cost of local office space.
To be more than just a naysayer, I began researching available options. I learned of a vacant 76,000 square foot building across Pacific Avenue from the proposed building, available at around half the cost per square foot. A leading commercial real estate broker told me the county had not contacted him, but if it had he would have suggested they buy an available 117,500 square foot office building already partially leased by the Public Works department.
The cost? $120 per square foot — less than one-third of the new building.
Meantime, County Council members Doug Richardson and Jim McCune found another opportunity — the massive former Intel building in DuPont, also available at a bargain.
I was disappointed that The News Tribune editorial accused these council members of “trying to sabotage” the office tower without offering any alternative. The Intel site is certainly worth considering for public works, as well as information technology, budget and finance, risk management and human resources, all providing important support for the front-line departments.
While I don’t see DuPont as a convenient main location for my office, it could contain a satellite office to serve Southwest Pierce County.
So there is not only a “Plan B” but also a Plan C and D readily available to the county. I hope the council and executive will step back from taking the plunge off this proposed nine-story building, and instead use that vantage point to look around at other economical solutions.
Mike Lonergan is the Pierce County assessor-treasurer.