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Old City Hall: City has little recourse to force clean-up, city manager tells council

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on Nov. 30, 2010 at 4:33 pm with 14 Comments »
November 30, 2010 5:05 pm

City regulators have little or no legal authority to force the owners of Old City Hall to clean up the historic building after a ruptured water pipe flooded parts of it last week, City Manager Eric Anderson told city council members Tuesday.

During an update on Old City Hall’s situation at the council’s study session, Anderson assured council members the city is doing all it can to ensure the privately-owned building doesn’t go the way of another downtown landmark: the Luzon Building.

A tenant watches watches water flowing from a broken pipe inside Old City Hall last week.

“We want to make sure we are doing everything we can do to avoid losing the building,” Anderson said.

But Anderson added: “We can’t just go into a (private) building and clean it up without an immediate public danger.”

Unlike the 118-year-old Luzon, which the city razed last year after 30 years of neglect and private restoration efforts failed, Old City Hall does not represent a public safety hazard, Anderson said.

“It’s not in imminent danger of collapse,” he said.

On a hypothetical scale of 1 to 10, with 10 posing an immediate threat to public safety, Anderson described the 122-year-old Old City Hall building as closer to a 1.

But at least one council member disagreed with Anderson’s assessment.

“I’d put it closer to a 5,” said Councilman David Boe, an architect by trade, “just because of the insidious nature of water in a wood-framed structure.”

Boe added “there is significant concern” with allowing water to stand over time in Old City Hall, a situation he said could create structural, mold or other problems and potentially limit interests from outside parties that may want to take on the project.

“You’ve got to dry that building out,” Boe said. “…What concerns me with a wood-framed structure in the interior – and we’re heading into the wet months – (is) there needs to be a plan going forward, and not just wait for the insurance claim.”

Since sprinkler pipes froze and burst last Wednesday, flooding 30,000 gallons of water inside the building, little clean up has occurred.

On Monday, George Webb, general manager of the building’s Seattle-based ownership group, told The News Tribune he is still assessing damages to figure out what to do next.

With its iconic brick tower and Italian Renaissance architecture, Old City Hall is one of the city’s most recognizable structures. Once the headquarters of city operations, the building has been in private ownership for decades.

It housed a full complement of commercial tenants until 2005, when Webb’s group bought the building and forced its tenants to vacate with ideas to convert offices to condos.

Since then, with the collapse of the condo market, the building has fallen into disrepair and financial distress. Webb said earlier this week he’s now negotiating with Union Bank to address a threatened foreclosure, while still trying to lease out commercial space.

Neither Webb nor any other representative of the building’s ownership group attended Tuesday’s study session. Webb did not immediately return a call seeking comment later Tuesday.

But Anderson told council members that since the building’s flooding, city officials have been in contact with the owners. In a memo to the council earlier Tuesday, Anderson informed them a property manager told city staff on Monday he was getting the building’s electrical system certified and repairing its sprinkler system. The building’s two tenants are also being relocated, the property manager said.

“We’re encouraging the property owner to take action,” Anderson added.

But when asked by Mayor Marilyn Strickland whether the owners have a plan to clean up the building, Anderson said he didn’t know. Strickland asked him to find out.

Even if the structure isn’t posing an immediate public danger, Boe wondered whether city officials could take action given the building’s state of neglect. With the fire alarm system now down, Boe noted, that poses a potential fire hazard.

“There are all the tell-tale signs of a building in distress,” Boe added. “Can’t we step in and say,`You fix it or we will fix it for you?’”

That’s unlikely said Anderson and City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli, who noted city code specifically details what constitutes nuisance or danger properties.

“If it’s a nuisance or a violation of code, we can do that,” Anderson said. “But we can’t use that to get into a building (to clean it up).”

Because the building’s tenants have since relocated, Anderson added, the city’s potential regulatory authority is further weakened.

“We thought we had (a hammer), but with the tenants being relocated (we don’t),” he said.

“So we can’t go in and clean up the property and send them the bill,” Strickland asked.

“I wish we could,” Anderson said.

Also Tuesday, Ruben McKnight, the city’s historical preservation officer, told the council he continues to work on a new proactive inspection program for historic landmarks to head off potential problems. That effort was launched earlier this year in the aftermath of the Luzon’s demolition.

Leave a comment Comments → 14
  1. I think Old City Hall is the most beautiful building in Tacoma and it would be a shame if it were to get to a point that it had to be demolished.

    On the other hand, I’m tired of our government thinking they can tell people to do whatever they want to their PRIVATE property. Especially if it isn’t a danger to the public.

    I sincerely hope the current owners do the right thing and at least keep the building protected from the elements and fix the water damage from the latest sprinkler leak (it would be stupid not to) However, it’s not the place of government to force them.

  2. If the city of Tacoma want this building fix they should pay the bill. Don’t they have enough of their own problems to worry about?

  3. justin_yorbum says:


    “Although a relatively new form of governmental regulations, historic preservation ordinances are well-grounded legally.

    In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark decision, Penn Central Transportation Co. v. City of New York, 438 U.S. 104 (1978), recognized that preserving historic resources is ‘an entirely permissible governmental goal,’ and that New York City’s historic preservation ordinance was an ‘appropriate means’ to securing that goal. Some states have also explicitly recognized historic preservation as a legitimate governmental function in their state constitutions.

    That being said, a local government’s ability to regulate historic properties is dependent upon state law. Local governments are creatures of the state and, pursuant to the U.S. Constitution, the authority to regulate private property is reserved to the states. Thus, it is important to ensure that local preservation ordinances are consistent with the authority bestowed on local governments to protect historic resources. This authority may take the shape of a broad delegation of authority (commonly referred to as home rule authority) or special grants of authority that specify what types of properties may be designated, who may designate those properties, the composition of a preservation commission, actions subject to review, and so forth.”

  4. justin_yorbum says:


    “An increasing number of communities have also adopted provisions in their preservation ordinances to prevent a practice often described as ‘demolition by neglect.’ Such provisions enable a city or town, following notice and hearing, to make essential repairs to prevent situations whereby a building or structure must be demolished to remove a public safety hazard. Expenses are often recouped by imposing a lien on the property.”

  5. justin_yorbum says:

    The city’s elected officials not only have the right to pursue legal action to force the property owners to fix the place, they have the duty to do so.

    You can build all the fancy new museums you want but when a city’s old buildings fall they can’t be replaced and the city is poorer for it.

  6. CrazyTed says:

    Standing water and wood structures do not mix. If the owners of this building do not act quickly the building will rot out.
    Force them to dry it out or take it back . History can not be replaced only changed.

  7. Kevindot1 says:

    George Webb, please do the right thing. You bought this building – but it belongs to the City of Tacoma. You bought a building that you have the obligation to maintain. It is your fault there are no tenants in there anymore. You owe it to the citizens of Tacoma to not let this building fall further into disrepair! I swear you will be hunted down and ran out of town if this building falls further apart. you have standing water on wooden floors in a century + year old building! This building may not mean more than just dollars and cents to you – but it is our history and our landmark you are messing with!

  8. Kevindot1 says:

    Grrr, this whole topic really has gotten under my skin!! And all we can do is sit back and watch as the mold spores grow with our hands tied. It is the most frustrating feeling!!

  9. This is why we pay Eric Anderson the big bucks… So he can hold our hand as we walk to the gas chamber… but he cares he pats our hand and says things like “There There”

  10. summit98446 says:

    The remediation effort should have commenced a week ago, but all we have is a study session followed by a sound off at City Council. Where is our leadership, courage and GRIT!!
    Informal poll to the Citizens of Tacoma & Pierce County:
    Given contractual protections from Union Bank and the ownership group you would be in first position to proceeds from the imminent foreclosure sale of Old City Hall…..Are there those of us out there who would put our money behind our words to see the remediation effort commence immediately??
    If so, COUNT ME IN for a 5-figure loan!

  11. If the tenants are still under a lease or have paid for this month, then it doesn’t really matter that they vacated. I don’t understand that point, they still have a legal interest in the building.

  12. rockrabbit says:

    Clean it up now, answer questions later.

  13. mariachong says:

    I’d also plead with the city to put into effect well-thought-out ordinances that will allow future emergency action if a significant, historic building is in danger. Not just last-minute actions at the point of collapse, but laws that give teeth to requirements to protect and preserve, especially when the structure is threatened with serious damage yet still can be saved.

    Yes, this is not only allowed by law, but laws compelling landowners to maintain civic landmarks are already in place around the nation and successfully defended in court.

    If current Tacoma law does not allow action, perhaps it’s true the city’s hands are tied–in this particular case. I guess I’m saying if that’s true, change the law! Find the key to the shackles now, before the next rainstorm / freeze / crumbling brick landmark leans too far. This isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last time, that a key piece of city history is threatened by decay or weather conditions. Is the pattern of governance going to be one reaction, one outcry after another, yet no change in the system of inspections, fines, regulations?

    There are plenty of examples around the country where small cities enacted laws to give them additional tools to prevent demolition by neglect.

    I’m hoping that those in leadership will not take the path of, “the law does not allow us to act so we are let off the hook for this one. Whew!” Rather, “this is a tragedy, so what can we do–working with owners and respecting property rights, taking economic & business interests into consideration–that will still give us tools to enforce preservation codes.”

  14. Good test of the true measure of the City govt.
    If they don’t take measures like enacting preservation ordinances, etc. then its just a yap yap side of mouth discussion CYA publicly as they let another historic landmark in PRIME location fall into the demo due to apparently permitted neglect status.
    Wonder what the profit margin is if the building is removed and a new project could be placed there?
    Apparently it must be high with the willingness to let the building become vacant, non revenue generating for so long so far.
    Any owner who didn’t have another concept in mind for the site would have at least kept some revenue stream coming in I would think unless the plan is to demolish when it becomes unsafe. And the fastest road towards that goal is vacancy, neglect and delayed response to damage………….

    Either the city will start changing regs immediately on historic buildings & make the necessary legal changes to prevent another Luzon fiasco or it will be another “wringing hands , so sad … too far gone ” as the dynamite goes off

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