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Seaport a bright spot in historic preservation

Post by Kim Bradford on Jan. 3, 2010 at 7:40 pm with No Comments »
January 4, 2010 4:59 pm

This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.

The Luzon Building may no longer be standing, but preserving Tacoma’s heritage wasn’t a lost cause in 2009.

Down the hill from the post-Luzon scar at 13th and Pacific is the Balfour Dock Building, the last remnant of what once was a mile-long stretch of grain storage warehouses.

The Balfour has come far – from a decaying castoff that once stored impounded vehicles to a combination maritime museum, working boat shop and hands-on learning center.

A major $7 million overhaul of the wharf in 2007 saved the Balfour from slipping into the Foss Waterway. The construction of the new concrete esplanade happened just in time to help host the Tall Ships Festival.

More work is on the way. The Foss Waterway Seaport, which is in charge of redeveloping the building, got a big boost last month. On the heels of the Tacoma City Council approving $2 million for improvements to the Balfour, an unnamed donor gave the Seaport another $2 million.

The private money – from a benefactor “with deep local roots in Tacoma who no longer lives here,” according to Seaport officials – will go toward creating a laboratory and classrooms. It also will endow marine and environmental education programs that aim to get students excited about science.

The city’s contribution will buy seismic bracing and other public safety upgrades for the 109-year-old timbered warehouse.

Together with an earlier $750,000 state appropriation to help replace the roof, the money will bring the 45,000-square-foot structure into compliance with building codes.

The city’s support has extra significance. Tacoma owns the building, but had contributed little to its overhaul. Public and private donors had begun to ask why they should give when the owner wasn’t. Tacoma’s participation will assist Seaport backers as they look to raise $8 million more to fully renovate the building by 2012. The private donation is another vote of confidence that will help convince other potential donors to give.

It’s been a long haul for Seaport officials already, and they’re not done yet. But they no longer have to wonder if the building will be saved for future generations, only when their vision of creating a destination museum and education center will be realized.

There is a lesson in the Balfour’s incremental rescue. Historic structures are often lost in one fell swoop, but rarely saved in the same manner. Preservation takes time and sustained effort. A plan that serves several interests also doesn’t hurt.

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