VIDEO: City of Tacoma uses new code to protect historic Washington building

City of Tacoma uses new code to protect historic Washington building.
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City of Tacoma uses new code to protect historic Washington building.
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Familiar downtown Tacoma high rise hits hard times

May 11, 2016 05:25 PM

For sale: skyline-defining, historic building on Pacific Avenue. Needs TLC: Broken terracotta masonry, vegetation growing from masonry, non-working elevator.

Asking price: $9.6 million, much more than it may be worth at this point.

The details are familiar to Tacomans — but this time it’s not Old City Hall.

City officials’ concerned gaze has shifted two blocks south to the Washington Building at 11th Street and Pacific Avenue.

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“These are the same friends that owned Old City Hall, and I would say they are applying the same diligence in maintaining the Washington Building that they did in Old City Hall,” said tenant John Dimmer, tongue firmly in cheek.

That owner is George Webb of Seattle’s The Stratford Co.

City officials say they haven’t heard from him or anyone at the company for 10 months, and that he’s ignoring city requests to fix the Washington Building’s problems. When reached Wednesday, Webb said he would re-engage with the city “immediately.”

Dimmer’s family has had an office in the Washington Building for 35 years. The building had “sporadic heat” this past winter, and only one elevator sometimes works and air conditioning hasn’t worked for the past two summers, he said.

“There were all of these little clues that kept popping up where, there’s a problem,” Dimmer said. “If the city hasn’t been concerned up to this point, they should be.”

Wild plants grow from the ledges of the 17-story building and cracks snake through some terracotta tiles that coat the structure. City of Tacoma historic preservation officer Reuben McKnight says without repairs, water can enter the building envelope and more problems will crop up.

Last year, Webb sold Old City Hall to the city of Tacoma for $4 million — $2.4 million more than it was appraised for and $200,000 more than what he paid in 2005. City officials did not want a repeat of the Luzon’s “demolition by neglect” in 2009. The Luzon, formerly two blocks away at 13th and Pacific, is now a parking lot.

The city is negotiating with Portland developer McMenamins on a development agreement for Old City Hall.

DESIGNED TO BE ‘SPECTACULAR’

The Washington Building began with all of the opulence and enthusiasm the Roaring ’20s had to offer. The Scandinavian American Bank broke ground for its Tacoma branch in 1919.

The 17-story skyscraper’s completion was placed on hiatus a couple of years later when the bank’s business collapsed. Another company took it over and the building opened in 1925 as the second-tallest in the Northwest.

“It’s a terracotta building. We don’t have too many of those in Tacoma,” McKnight said. “At the time it was built, it was designed to be a very spectacular commercial building. Banks often wanted to show off their economic vitality.”

Webb and other investors bought the building in 2005 for $9.6 million. Two years later, Webb said the company remodeled the lobby and elevator doors. Historic photos of the building’s heyday line its interior.

“We bought the building with an eye to bringing it up to a historic standard,” Webb said.

A few years after that, Webb said, he helped place the structure on the National Register of Historic Places.

Then the Great Recession hit. A bank tenant on the 13th floor left. The state attorney general’s office vacated 36,000 square feet — about 30 percent of the building’s total — for Pacific Plaza in 2010.

“The building is not financially sustainable because they left,” Webb said of the attorney general office’s move, “abandoning the historic asset to fend for itself. There are not enough resources to invest in the system.”

McKnight said the Washington Building’s situation is not as dire as Old City Hall’s was. The Washington Building has tenants, including Community Health Care and a number of small businesses, while Old City Hall did not and was designated as a dangerous building.

Still, the city has sent more than a dozen letters to Straftord, including seven violation notices levying fines that have all gone unpaid.

The city of Tacoma is now weighing its options.

In December 2014, the city asked Webb to remove plants growing on the building and to fix cracks in the terracotta tiles, McKnight said.

The company responded with a plan to fix those and other issues, and McKnight thought repairs would soon follow.

Webb said the issues the city wants him to fix are relatively minor and straightforward.

POTENTIAL DEAL FALLS THROUGH

Last year, a buyer from Vietnam expressed interest in the building. The buyer wanted to invest in the Tacoma area and was serious about the building with views of Commencement Bay, Mount Rainier and the Port of Tacoma.

In all, the buyer spent around $100,000 and six months exploring what it would take to bring the building up to code, buy it from Webb and renovate the spaces for office use.

But Webb wanted $9.6 million, too much for her customer, said Liz Davidson, a real estate agent with Realogics Sotheby’s International Realty in Seattle. The county assessor places the value at $6.2 million. Webb bought the Washington Building in 2005 for $9.6 million.

“The owners were not realistic with the pricing,” Davidson said.

Webb said the potential buyer had signed a contract for the price should the feasibility study pan out, though he would not confirm the amount. Webb said Wednesday that a different potential buyer is under contract for the building.

TENANTS’ VIEW

Alex Hays, a political consultant on the 10th floor of the Washington Building, called his view “breathtakingly beautiful.”

“I see the mountain. I see the port. I get lots of natural light. I like that old-fashioned aesthetic,” he said. “But there are downsides.”

Several tenants contacted for this story did not want to be named, but listed similar problems. One tenant above the 10th floor said the building’s lone working elevator had broken down three times last week, and that clients often balked at climbing so many stairs.

David Flentge, CEO of Community Health Care on the second and third floors, said the heat was out for “weeks and weeks” during the winter, causing workers to use electrical heaters for warmth.

“We are not trying to see patients here, at least,” Flentge said.

Webb said his company is changing elevator repair vendors and hopes to have more reliable elevator service in the future. The air conditioning and heating system is more than 40 years old, he said.

“There is no way to replace that at this time. The rents are really cheap. (Tenants’) eyes should be wide open,” Webb said. “... There is still limited demand in downtown Tacoma for commercial space. It’s not like tenants are beating down the door at any building.”

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542, @KateReports