Developers tour then ponder new uses for Old City Hall

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The City of Tacoma is shopping Old City Hall around again with hopes of landing a buyer to redevelop the iconic building into a mix of offices, hotel rooms, shops, restaurants or apartments. A deal could come as early as this fall.

“It has been a project very near and dear to our hearts,” said Assistant Director of Community and Economic Development Elly Walkowiak. “We are looking for very creative ideas for its long-term and successful use.”

City officials toured Old City Hall last week with developers who represented more than a dozen firms from around Puget Sound in hopes that contractors and investors will see potential reuses of the 55,000-square-foot building in Tacoma’s downtown. Tacoma had bought the building for $4 million – when it was appraised for $1.6 million – from a private developer in 2015. Destination-pub developer McMenamins had eyes on it from the start, with visions of tying it into its $34 million renovation of the former Elks lodge into a hotel and entertainment venue right across the street. The lag in gathering investors for that project and renovation schedules of other properties, however, forced the Portland-based company to walk away from those plans. McMenamins’ Elks lodge is set to open in 2019.

The city then issued a call for development ideas that netted four offers, but the city passed on the less-than-straightforward plans to use the building as a tech, startup hub and a headquarters for a company that wants to build an elevator to the moon. That set the city-owned building back on the market and the current round of request for proposals from interested developers.

“There has been quite a lot of interest,” said Walkowiak.

Those proposals are due July 31. City staffers will then spend about a month reviewing the proposals before forwarding their recommendations to the City Council by the fall.

Any new owner of Old City Hall faces some expensive renovations to retrofit the unreinforced, brick-and-masonry building, even with its historical designations. But those costs could be offset with tax and redevelopment incentives. The building, for example, sits within the new federal opportunity zone that offers tax credits, and energy- or water-efficiency systems could trigger breaks through Tacoma Public Utilities.

Whatever the cost, any new owner would immediately own the most iconic building in the city at a time and a place when Tacoma’s downtown is booming with more than $1 billion in commercial and residential developments.

“This building is one I’ve been thinking about every day for a very long time,” said Tacoma’s Historic Preservation Officer Reuben McKnight. “It is one of our most important buildings.”

Old City Hall was built in 1893 to serve as the center of city government in the boom town that was fueled by international trade through its waterfront and the transcontinental railroad  tracks that brought people from the bustling cities of the East Coast and Midwest and sent locally milled lumber around the nation. The building’s clock was donated by Hugh Wallace on Christmas Day of 1904 to honor the death of their daughter. The building operated as Tacoma’s City Hall until city departments outgrew the floors and moved into the County-City Building in 1959. 

The five-story building sat vacant for a decade before it was converted into shops and restaurants. Plans came and went as the decades passed. The building has been vacant for the last 10 years. Times have changed, however, with the building now surrounded by historic buildings that have found new lives as hotels, apartments and offices, namely the Elks Lodge, the Union Club and the Winthrop.

“Tacoma continues to evolve at a dramatic pace, with more than $1 billion being invested into development projects in downtown alone,” said Mayor Victoria Woodards. “With Old City Hall, the City of Tacoma would like to consider proposals for projects that complement surrounding development downtown, foster even more vibrancy in the downtown core, and re-establish the building’s preeminence in Tacoma.”

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