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Old City Hall - Beset by a Bursting Market Bubble and a Bursting Pipe
Old City Hall, standing sentinel at the north end of Pacific Avenue, has suffered water damage throughout its six historic floors due to a burst fire sprinkler pipe (TNT coverage here). Approximately 30,000 gallons of water poured into the building on Wednesday (Nov. 24) when the blockage thawed. Tenants have been scrambling to deal with the situation, though at the time of this article, there has been no word from the building’s ownership group.
Unfortunately, the recent travails of this architectural landmark could be a morbid summarizing metaphor for the effects of The Great Recession. The building entered private ownership decades ago, and was enthusiastically purchased in 2005 by George Webb of the Stratford Company. As was the fashion in those days, there was hardly an old building in existence which couldn’t be envisioned as a luxury condominium hive (with curated elements of yesteryear, of course). In exuberant pursuit of this all-too-common dream, the Old City Hall LLC managed to talk most of the building’s existing tenants into finding leases elsewhere. Those remaining presented some complications (TNT coverage here).
The momentum toward condominium conversion – and renovation – slowed further when the ownership group learned that certain seismic requirements would need to be met. Then, the once-raging housing and commercial real estate markets finally entered the boundaries of reality, shuddering and whimpering to a halt. Desperate to find a revenue stream, Old City Hall’s owners even proposed providing low-rent artist work space in the building. Shortly thereafter, banking issues and troubles with payment for utilities caused some concern (TNT coverage here).
And now, just as our Old City Hall and the rest of the world seems to be on cruise control through limbo, a pipe froze – as if to highlight everything that’s been neglected or postponed until better times. Some things – historic buildings included – do not pay much heed to economic viability. No one has volunteered to fix the clock in the clock tower, either.
The extent of the damage to Old City Hall’s structure is unknown. Inspection could potentially reveal a lengthy list of needed improvements. As more information emerges, we will be sure to take note.
At this time, it seems sufficient to say that the situation is very unfortunate. Of course, had the City and Mr. Webb been in possession of a time machine, the problem could have been averted – along with the economic crisis and the musical career of Ke$ha. Even so, the fall of the Luzon taught us that historic value does not make a structure impervious to administrative machinations. The pursuit of practical solutions will only be weakened and discredited by the distracting search for villainy. Until there is further information, we simply cannot know what options or possibilities lie before us.
What should be clear is this: Old City Hall is of tremendous value to this city. It is essential. It represents the optimism and ambition of Tacoma’s history, and links our downtown to grand European architectural traditions. It houses the ghosts of Tacoma’s struggles through scandal and triumph, and (until the clock is fixed) sometimes causes visitors to check their watches.
(Photo by Alicia Wilkinson)
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