City reviews site for new fire station on the Tideflats

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The historic fire station on the Tideflats would need too many renovations and modifications to bring it up to the current standards for use as an active fire station, but the Tacoma Fire Department could location one elsewhere if a deal could be made. Photo by Blake Kremer

City and fire officials are reviewing three port-owned sites on the Tideflats for the location of a new fire station as a way to avoid the possible demolition of the historic fire station the Tacoma Fire Department mothballed during the budget crunching of the “Great Recession” a decade ago.

The fire department needs a new fire station to provide more emergency response services on the increasingly industrial waterfront. Higher fire protection was a central point in an agreement that the City of Tacoma penned with Puget Sound Energy regarding the operation of an 8 million-gallon liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility the utility is constructing near the corner of Taylor Way and 11th Street. PSE agreed to pay the city $5.5 million toward “city mitigations” needed once the plant begins operations. The current timeline for that is 2021. The start date has already slipped back about a year because the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency requires a ground-to-ship review of the air quality changes caused by the facility. The LNG plant will convert natural gas into a super-cold liquid to fuel container ships and provide for gas storage to use during extreme weather conditions. 

The fire department currently responds to incidents on the waterfront with crews housed at either the Fire Training Center elsewhere on the Tideflats and from Fire Station 6. That will continue until the new station opens. The department could also develop some temporary plan for increased fire protection on the waterfront to fill any possible gap between when PSE’s plant begins operation and when a new station opens.

Environmental groups and the Puyallup Tribe of Indians have raised safety concerns at PSE’s facility, not only about any increased air pollution the facility might create but the potential destruction that an accident at the plant could create since it is located so close to highly populated areas. 

Officials first thought that the city could simply renovate Fire Station 5, since it sits across the street from the PSE facility, and house fire crews there. A structural review earlier this year, however, concluded that it was structurally “unfit” to serve as a modern fire station. The brick-and-mortar station would also need extensive reinforcements to remain functional as an “essential facility” during earthquake or other emergencies. 

None of those renovations would come cheap for the 90-year-old building. It also spent the last decade serving only as a storage facility after the station closed in 2007. The expense and complexities of renovating an aged and diminutive station then prompted the idea of replacing it with a new station on the same site. That’s a road that historically minded folks hope the city doesn’t drive down. Demolishing the historic fire station and rebuilding a modern station on the site would also likely be problematic and already a controversial option to even ponder. The fire department would have to submit an application to the city’s Landmarks Commission to demolish a station that the department itself had stated was historically significant when it was added to Tacoma’s historical registry in 1987.

Fire Station 5 is a one-story, stucco station that was built in a Mediterranean style. Its historical significance dates back to the establishment of the St. Paul and Tacoma Lumber Co. in 1888 and World War II, when it provided emergency responses to the ship-building operations that once churned out war-bound crafts by the hundreds.

Those historical ties prompted the city to ask the Port of Tacoma to look through its land holdings for a parcel that could potentially serve as a site for a new fire station. There are. The station just needs about an acre. The fire department just wants a modern fire station somewhere around the Hylebos Waterway.

 Port officials listed three sites that might fit the bill. A site sits next to the historical fire station that could potentially allow for the construction of a new station next to the historic one. Two other parcels are nearby. City officials are now reviewing those parcels. 

“They are trying to do a proof of concept, if you will,” Tacoma Fire Department spokesman Joe Mieneke said, noting that the work isn’t a more formal and in-depth “feasibility study.”

That review will likely provide some options by the end of the summer. The terms of any parcel purchase or land swap between the city and port would start only after one of the parcels proves usable. The city could also purchase other property from either the Puyallup Tribe or other private owner if none of the port lands pencil out for some reason.

“I would say the ball is in their court at this point,” said Port of Tacoma’s Government Affairs Manager Evette Mason.

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