City of Tacoma to Buy Old City Hall?

The City of Tacoma could soon be the proud owner (once again) of the historic Old City Hall property.

That's if a resolution on next week's city council meeting is adopted.

Completed in 1893, the five-story building at 625 Commerce served as the seat of City of Tacoma government for 66 years. In 1974 it was renovated for commercial use, then in 2005 sold to Old City Hall LLC to be converted to condos... we've seen how well that worked out... and it has sat empty for several years now.

The building has been deteriorating, and the Historic Preservation office is concerned about its condition, as it has been subject to neglect, flooding, and other damage. In 2013 the City served the current property owners with a Dangerous Building Complaint that included multiple violations. Since then a few repairs have been made, including the replacement of a portion of the roof, but issues remain, and time and weather continue to wear on the grand old building.

It appears that the City has given up waiting on the property owners to take the needed preservation actions, and is now looking at stepping in to do the work itself. The resolution on next week's agenda would allow the City to take control of preserving the iconic structure.

Staff recommends Council authorize the acquisition of the property to protect its interest in the preservation of Old City Hall, a historic landmark, protection of the City's investment in addressing building deterioration through its code enforcement actions and managing the ultimate re-use of the building in a manner that will further the City's economic development goals. 

The price listed is $4.2 million. The City would cover the cost out of its Economic Development Special Revenue Fund.

If the purchase goes ahead, the City would do the needed repairs to put a halt to deterioration, and preserve historic elements of the building. Going forward, the building would be "made available for private development consistent with the goals for downtown development and the historic district."

The purchase of Old City Hall requires city council approval - should they do it?

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Brittany Gotschall


May 29, 2015 at 8:06 am / Reply / Quote and reply

8 | 5


Awesome news! 

Getting a private investor to maintain and restore the clock tower, when the ROI isn’t there, would not happen unless it happened to be an expensive boutique hotel or something else having the clock tower as it’s marketing identifier.  A municipality was needed here and I’m so happy to see the City step in. 

I would personally love to see the building used as a hybrid office building for the City and County Councils.  Take all the top-brass decision makers and put their offices here.  Put public meeting rooms, City and County Council Chambers, etc in this building so they’re always bumping in to each other - it’s hard not to work well together this way.  Put the historical society or a visitors center on the first floor.  I mean, good, imaginative, and productive things could be done with this iconic structure.

Really though, this is what leadership looks like.  Great work!

May 29, 2015 at 8:48 am / Reply / Quote and reply

12 | 5

Elizabeth Burris

Great idea!

June 2, 2015 at 2:13 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

3 | 0


Awe shucks…  ;)

June 3, 2015 at 6:15 am / Reply / Quote and reply

0 | 0

Rob Bell

yes we should

May 29, 2015 at 11:28 am / Reply / Quote and reply

6 | 5


Yes.  A no-brainer.  Towns far far smaller & far more conservative than Tacoma do this all the time to save their cultural heritage.  OCH could end up being a major hub for economic development, and/or house a City or County division(s).

May 29, 2015 at 12:19 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

7 | 5


If there are no buyers on the horizon and the last known offer was in the neighborhood of 1.5 million. It seems that the property is clearly overpriced. Why should the city pay the asking price? I am for the acquisition but I question the price.

May 29, 2015 at 12:58 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

7 | 1


Old City Hall is the icon for Tacoma what the Space Needle is for Seattle. Forget the losses the 1890s business blocks along Pacific Avenue replaced with parking lots and non-descript parking structures.  Treasure that is Old City Hall endures in original form, a building designed originally to serve as the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce headquarters by Charles B. Wright’s western headquarters for the Northern Pacific Railroad at 621 Pacific Ave.  There is nothing else like it, even in Port Townsend and Seattle, cities that promote their Victorian architectural heritage.  The city must certainly get back its investment in the structure but with city leadership rather than the indifferent ownership that characterized the last days of the Luzon Building that made demolition there a near-indisputable certainty the prized structure can be saved.  Somehow, just as an effort swelled to the stop further decay at the grand Union Station with the city taking control of the site to create a federal courthouse there, that same leadership vision is taking a reasoned chance to save Old City Hall for tomorrow.  As long as the city gets an eventually return on its financial investment (and such may be the case, if eventually the surrounding neighborhood is revived—ironic that old buildings just to the west of Old City Hall were demolished forty years ago to create parking for the structure), it is worthwhile for the civic sense of identity that such a building from the City of Destiny boomtown era survives.  Only Tacomans would care enough to see that it lives on despite the setbacks that led to the economic rise of Seattle (Tacomans must never forget their city’s downtown business district cradled the early years of corporate firms like the NPRR, Weyerhaeuser Company, Key Bank of Washington, and Russell Investments—all companies tied strongly today to Seattle).  Be glad that the Haub family gifted their art collection to the Tacoma Art Museum—the legacy of Tacoma’s historic economic greatness is in its dazzling new museums!

May 29, 2015 at 1:32 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

4 | 6


Is anyone aware that this coffee roaster is remodeling a huge old mechanic garage across the street from Safeway on M St. off of S. 38 Th This is huge for the Lincoln District.

May 29, 2015 at 3:54 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

3 | 3


Remodeling? They tore the thing down and good riddance!

May 30, 2015 at 9:27 am / Reply / Quote and reply

2 | 0


Wrong building, the coffee roasters actually moved in further on M St. towards 39th.

May 30, 2015 at 10:02 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

1 | 0


This won’t be a popular opinion, but here goes.
I think it’s ridiculous for a city that can’t afford to fill potholes to waste millions on maudlin sentimentality. Yes the building is pretty. Yes, it’s historical. It’s also leaking and full of mold and damage from years of neglect and it’s a death-trap in the event of an earthquake. Before any use, the entire building will have to be gutted and restored to usefulness as well as being brought up to code and seismically retrofit to whatever degree is possible for a pile of bricks. Do you think that’s going to be inexpensive? We’ll be lucky if the price-tag comes in at under $50 million. There is a reason the private sector doesn’t want this white elephant. 
That’s all tax dollars, in case you weren’t paying attention. Spent on a building that isn’t even in the CBD anymore. What a shameful waste that would be.

May 30, 2015 at 9:50 am / Reply / Quote and reply

14 | 6


Tacoma has forfeit any claim to responsible stewardship of the public treasury.  The analogy of buying a new flat screen while still living under the blue tarp that has been on your roof for the last three years is especially apt here.

May 30, 2015 at 4:55 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

9 | 7


So the question is something like, “Should we all just wish and hope that this curiosity will somehow attract the right benefactor at the right time?”

Isn’t it closer to the truth that rational minds would confront the challenge, would plan, would seek out the best possible steward to restore and maintain this artifact, if it has now, or if it has ever had any value?

But value is not a statement of material fact. This Old City Hall, abandoned for over fifty years, does not have a value, does not have a worth that stirs the heart of most people. I understand that there’s an asking price for the structure, but that’s only a starting point for the negotiation. Consider also the day-to-day price of ownership.

The final decision whether to purchase may depend on something else than price. It may depend on factors other than the material features of the building—-not every thing that can be measured has worth. The purchase may depend ultimately on how the buyer feels about the whole deal—-not every thing that has worth can be measured.

If the City purchases the building, then the plan is to confront the challenge of needed restoration and maintenance. After that, the plan is to wish and hope that this curiosity will somehow attract the right benefactor at the right time.

May 31, 2015 at 11:08 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

1 | 4


Only city government cares enough to buy Old Tacoma City Hall because only city government has ambitions to revitalize the city.  Too often, despite pretenses that Tacoma is a viable business address alternative to more costly Seattle, commercial leaders in King County and around the nation often perceive the city as a shabby Puget Sound suburb rathan than a vibrant destination.  Sure, some new construction has reversed decades of malaise in the urban core.  Indeed, the pending restoration of the historic Winthrop Hotel is a sign of life for the Old City Hall National Historic District.  Today, the crossroads issue is whether Old Tacoma City Hall should survive.  Well, like Stadium High School, it has endured for twelve decades and survived several earthquakes.  Unlike Stadium High School, which had been a charred ruin in about 1904, with some of its bricks removed to build small railroad stations in Missoula, Montana and Wallace, Idaho, Old Tacoma City Hall has remained essentially mothballed, ready for new uses.  Old Tacoma City Hall as an architectural statement cannot be duplicated and stands as evidence to refute claims Tacoma has always been a second-rate city compared to Seattle.  It’s demolition would be a disgrace for a city that has otherwise invested in new museums.  In contrast, Old Tacoma City Hall, even if only weather-proofed for a few more years until the right development opportunity arose for the city to get backs investment, would stand to help justify new private investments in nearby real estate.  It is easy to kill a city if its spirit is lost.  Tacoma certainly forgot for many decades about Thea Foss, a business pioneer who witnessed the construction of Old Tacoma City Hall—just as Seattle adopted her legend as a false local myth there.  City government must lead to buy Old Tacoma City Hall, with a firm reminder to the business community that such an investment is mean to stimulate new job-creating commercial enteprises in the downtown area.  A fair question to ask is why are there so many construction cranes in downtown Seattle while there are struggles to get such activity underway in Tacoma.  If the city let’s Old Tacoma City Hall fall like the Luzon Building did via neglect, the civic investments in the museums will have been meaningless.  What good does it do to put museum jewelry onto a city that would have otherwise lost its historic architectural soul.  Old Tacoma City Hall stands as a monument to confidence in early Tacoma and the West of Manifest Destiny—the city council must act reasonably to save it from further deterioration.  It is also a testament to possibilities for a greater Tacoma—the City of Destiny.  Today’s city council would well-serve future generations well by making a prudent investment to save the building.  It speaks more of promises for Tacoma than empty parking lots at S. 13th and Pacific.

June 1, 2015 at 4:40 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

4 | 2


We could imagine that Old City Hall is a social good—that it offers something constructive to the spiritual well-being of Tacoma—it makes life worth living. Likewise, we could imagine that Old City Hall is an economic good—that it offers something constructive to the sustenance of old values and new horizons—and in real life, people pay money for those promises.

But history shows, that in real life, in secularist terms, Old City Hall is a market failure. In a competitive environment, OCH is nothing more than a poster child for social welfare.

The City of Tacoma long ago abandoned this special needs child. But today, OCH has a new family. It has foster parents. Yet, some people at City Hall feel the need to intervene in OCH’s family. The story is that OCH, the special needs child, requires the power of a savior; or in the least, an affirmative action mediator.

The foster parents of OCH seem to understand something that some people at City Hall don’t. Power takes many forms, including the external appearance of weakness. Is it imaginable that the foster parents of OCH are manipulating the emotions of the people of Tacoma for economic gain?

Let’s all take a clear-eyed view of Old City Hall’s real state of affairs, before we pledge our allegiance to serve as its keeper.

June 2, 2015 at 8:54 am / Reply / Quote and reply

2 | 2


“because only city government has ambitions to revitalize the city”

As an outsider (though frequent visitor, more or less every other week) but someone who has considered relocating his company there and is still playing with the idea of buying some commercial/mixed use space (basically, I want the city to win) in the city I’d say that it seems like the city government hasn’t done a good job of revitalization over the past 5-10 years.  It seems like there is a lack of unique vision going back to when I first started visiting this site in ‘05, and is a sentiment shared by friends involved in local politics there.

Long story short:  fully agree with Ruaidhri and others saying that paying a well above market rate for an asset that will require considerable additional investment to get up to usability AND that will in all likelihood sit vacant seems like a waste.  Take a fraction of that money and invest it in student led startups, see if you can’t get at least a small % of the graduating class of Tacoma to build the future of the city AND have a desire to stay vs. headed north to greener pastures.

July 16, 2015 at 1:27 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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