Saving Tacoma’s Historic Buildings From Demolition By Neglect

The City is exploring the possibility of developing an ordinance to prevent “demolition by neglect” of Tacoma's iconic historic structures.

On Monday the City Council Neighborhoods and Housing Committee heard a briefing from staff on the issue.  The idea is to give the City the tools, resources, and leverage it would need to step in to prevent other historic structures in Tacoma from crumbling due to property owner neglect (à la Luzon…).  

As historic buildings decline, the earlier an intervention can be made, the higher the likelihood the building will be saved.  We know that, and the City knows that.  The problem, however, is that existing codes that define the City’s capacity to step in don’t do much to allow for proactive intervention.  The public nuisance code and the minimum building code give the City some options for intervention, but not before properties have passed the point of no return.

The conversation going on now is about ways to remedy that by closing the gap between when we notice that a historic structure is at risk (Old City Hall, anyone?), and when the City can step in.  Nothing is set in stone yet, but some basic ideas being addressed suggest possible direction for the new rules.

  • What would be covered by the new rules? - The scope could be defined as applying to properties listed on the Tacoma Register of Historic Places, and/or National Register of Historic Places, and/or to contributing properties within locally and federally designated historic districts.
  • When would the new rules come into play? - They could give the City authority to address conditions in structures that are threatened, as defined by building and nuisance codes, without having to wait until they become dangerous enough that demolition is the only realistic option.
  • Carrot? - The new rules could use incentives to encourage owners of neglected historic properties to find new ownership.
  • Stick? - The rules could provide additional penalties to discourage owners from accumulating violations.
  • Really big stick? - The establishment of an emergency fund for preservation of historic buildings suffering from deferred maintenance could give the City the resources to step in when all else fails.  There may be an eminent domain or receivership option, and the fund could be used for work like replacing a leaking roof or other emergency fixes.

The details are still being worked out, but the hope is to bring an ordinance to Council by the end of the summer.  Finding a source for the possible emergency fund would be one issue - initial thoughts are that the fund would be started with a lump sum transfer from somewhere in the City budget, and ongoing funding could be built into permit or other fees.  Read more on the issues so far from The Daily Index.

Through this whole conversation, we’re not the only ones looking over our shoulders at Old City Hall, but at the root of this, there may be a bigger question of who owns a City’s history.  

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I don’t get why Old City Hall (OCH) and the parking lot (and graffiti garage?) across the street isn’t turned into new city hall.  Why can’t they buy it back?  It should be living it’s destiny as City Hall, IMO. 

The new building in the parking lot across the street could have Broadway street level business incubator storefronts similar to the SpaceWorks program.  They could build their parking garage up the hill in the Stadium District, with more Business Incubator street-front spots, on a vacant lot up there and have employees take the streetcar down the hill to the new buildings.  A win for Stadium and downtown? 

It would also free up the current municipal building as a great (likely asbestos and lead free) classic structure to be re-used for apartments or offices.

June 7, 2013 at 8:27 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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