Could a land swap save the historic fire station?

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

Tacoma Fire Department officials had hoped that crews could renovate a 90-year-old fire station on the Tideflats to provide faster response times to emergencies at the industrial, chemical and petroleum facilities that dot the working waterfront. 

Those hopes have since been dashed.

“It’s not the condition of the building so much,” Tacoma Fire Chief Jim Duggan said during a briefing for the Port of Tacoma Commissioners this week. “It’s the materials and construction methods of the building.” 

An engineering review of the fire station, known as Fire Station 5, has concluded the building structurally “unfit” to serve as a modern fire station, largely because the concrete, brick and mortar station would have to be reinforced to not only withstand earthquakes and other natural disasters but to remain functional as an “essential facility” during emergencies so its first responders could help others.

“We realized right away that it wasn’t going to meet those requirements,” Public Works Facilities Manager Justin Davis said. 

The fire station, at 3510 E. 11th St., was mothballed in 2007, during the budget-crunching times of the Great Recession, but it was already listed on the city’s historical register. Plans to restaff the station started after Puget Sound Energy agreed to pay $5.5 million to the city as part of a deal for the 8 million gallon liquified natural gas plant being constructed across the street from Station 5.

The fire department currently responds to incidents on the waterfront with crews at the Fire Training Center elsewhere on the Tideflats and from Fire Station 6 during nighttime calls for service. The Tideflats once housed three fire stations.

Demolishing the historic fire station and simply rebuilding a modern station would be problematic and controversial. The Fire Department would have to submit an application to the city’s Landmarks Commission for demolition of the station the department itself had stated was historically significant to the city when it filed for inclusion on Tacoma’s historical registry in 1987, alongside 12 other fire department facilities.

Groups and individuals are already lining up to oppose the department even exploring that route. But the department just wants a fire station on the Tideflats. Somewhere. Anywhere.

“We are not particularly married to that site,” Duggan said.

This is where the deal making comes in.

The department needs an acre or two for a fire station on the Tideflats, which means there could be a land swap between the Port of Tacoma, the city or the Puyallup Tribe for a new station, while preserving the historic station for future use. Any new or reactivated fire station would have to be operational by 2020. That’s the new timeline for when the LNG plant begins converting natural gas to a liquid to fuel container ships as well as to store for energy spikes during extreme weather conditions. The date had been pushed back about a year, when the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency required a ground-to-ship review of the project’s impact on air quality.

“That does give us some time to look at other alternatives for the site,” Duggan said.  

Port Commissioner Clare Petrich also sits on the board of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, a well-connected advocacy group known for its annual list of Most Endangered Places.

“I would suspect that it would be considered an endangered structure,” Petrich said at the meeting.

The possible listing of the fire station on next year’s Most Endangered Places list would elevate any possible plans of demolishing from problematic to political suicide given the community microscope that the Tideflats is under. Any decision about the station’s fate or the construction of a new one under any sort of deal that bubbles up would, after all, be made when the city-led subarea planning process was well underway that would determine the future of the working waterfront.

“The first thing we are just trying to save it, then find a use for it,” Historic Tacoma Treasurer Rick Semple said, maybe as a historical site or interpretive center. “I’m trying to come at it from a preservation point of view. It is one of the few historical buildings on port land.”

Fire Station 5 is a one-story stucco station that was built in a Mediterranean style with a cross-gabled roof and arched arcade. It has a hipped roof siren tower. Its historical significance dates back to the establishment of the St. Paul and Tacoma Lumber Co. in 1888 as well as through World War II, when it provides emergency responses to the ship building operations that once churned out crafts by the hundreds.

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