The Tacoma Sun


The Value of Tacoma’s Old Buildings

By Morgan Alexander

Part 2 in a series on economic development in Tacoma.

One of the side effects of being in the shadow of the Seattle-metro area is that an abundance of older buildings, many eligible for historic status, have been spared the fate of the wrecking ball. Love them or hate them, Tacoma has a LOT of old buildings.

Some are quite significant and have names you may have heard: Winthrop Hotel, Elks Temple, Luzon, and of course Union Station. Still, there are many others that aren’t quite as stately, yet no less significant: the Horsfall Building, built in 1919 in the Lincoln District or the Pochert Building at 1110-1112 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, designed by C.A. Darmer in 1904. Darmer is better known for other projects including the Tacoma Hotel, Harmon, the original Pierce County Courthouse, Columbia (Heidelberg) Brewery, Pacific Brewing & Malting Co. Complex, Olympus Hotel, Waddell, Meeker Mansion, Tacoma News Tribune, Carnegie Library, Carlton Hotel, to name only a few.

Heritage Tourism
Many Tacomans may take for granted how many fine old buildings we have, but visitors don’t. Many visitors during the last Tall Ships Festival were overheard commenting on all “the neat old buildings.” However, for many Tacomans there remains a perception that old buildings are a reminder of the past and that it’s time to move on, which is too bad. Indeed, some cities capitalize greatly on their history and incorporate it into their marketing – Port Townsend is a great local example. In fact, last year the State of Washington Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation released a report indicating that heritage tourism contributes hundreds of millions of dollars annually in this state.

“The National Trust defines ‘cultural heritage tourism’ as traveling to experience the places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present. This is a broad definition, but it’s fair to say that the interests of heritage travelers generally include visits to historic districts and privately-owned historic buildings, including hotels and bed and breakfasts, as well as museums and sites with guided tours and central admissions. Heritage sites in Washington range from historic homes that are entirely staffed by volunteers and open only part of the year to large federally-funded National Historic Sites administered by the National Park Service. Historic districts and vibrant historic downtown areas also serve as important heritage tourism attractions.”

“Heritage and other forms of tourism generate economic benefits for local economies because visitors to the area spend money on entrance fees, food and drink, transportation, gas, and lodging, among other things. These direct expenditures represent new money for the area and support local jobs and income, as well as generating additional employment and income through local multiplier effects. The heritage tourism portion of this study is primarily concerned with identifying the total (direct, indirect, and induced) economic impacts associated with spending by heritage tourists visiting Washington State.”

“Heritage tourists spent an estimated 8.7 million visitor days in Washington State in 2004, with average expenditures per day of $72.40. This resulted in total annual spending statewide of about $633 million, with much of this spending concentrated in the lodging, eating and drinking, and retail sectors.”

“Almost half (48.5 percent) of all visitor spending in Washington was in King County in 2004, with about 6.2 percent in Pierce County and 5.9 percent in Spokane County.”
* Washington Sate Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation

Neighborhood Vitality
By their nature, old buildings have an easily overlooked advantage to new buildings: they’re cheap! New construction, on the other hand, is not cheap. In Tacoma, you can expect to pay $25-$30 per foot to rent new office or retail space. Older buildings range from $9-$18 per foot – about half that of new construction. What does this mean? It means older buildings are more affordable to small local businesses and entrepreneurs. National chains can afford the more expensive space because they have the power of a brand name but also because they have the wherewithal to weather a down economy much longer than a small local business.

Retaining and re-using older buildings creates a rich urban fabric and is crucial to local entrepreneurs and businesses. For example, if I wanted to rent a 1,500 square foot retail or office space on MLK today, I could either pay $650 a month for renting in an older building, or I could lease space in a new building, such as the one proposed at 11th & MLK, for $2,250 a month. If you were starting a new business, which would you choose? But it’s not just about money, many people desire the character, simplicity, and integrity that are only found in older buildings.

In a study commissioned by the City of Tacoma, the Browne’s Star Grill Building on MLK was found to be structurally sound, though in need of some TLC. This building played a significant role in the development of the historic “K” Street business district. And it may be hard to tell in its current state, but under the grime and boarded up storefront sits a proud building with more character in its two stories than in many of the high-rises going up today. Many cities dream of having classic old buildings like this! And there are many other examples like this. While other local cities such as University Place and Mill Creek struggle to create walkable main street neighborhoods from scratch, Tacoma’s old commercial centers silently wait to rise again.

It has been said that tourists don’t go to Europe to see new buildings – they want to see the old! Old buildings give neighborhoods character. They stabilize neighborhoods and encourage economic development. If historic preservation can turn our downtown around, then wouldn’t we want to do the same for our neighborhood business districts?

Going Green
There is more value to old buildings than just nostalgia. In many cases, they are irreplaceable. The materials and craftsmanship simply are not available to today’s developers. You can’t build another Browne’s Star Grill building because the brick they used is not made any more. Even if you could find the brick, today’s zoning would not allow it to be built – it has no off-street parking. Why would the original builders not feel compelled to incorporate parking? Because streetcars used to run right in front of the building! But that’s another topic.

Jane Jacobs wrote in her seminal book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” “The economic value of new buildings is replaceable in cities. It is replaceable by the spending of more construction money. But the economic value of old buildings is irreplaceable at will. It is created by time.” While there is much talk these days about “green building,” we sometimes forget that the “greenest” buildings are the ones we already have. Building materials constitute the single largest category in our landfills.

published November 26th, 2007

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Erik Bjornson // Nov 27, 2007 at 10:41 pm

    Jane Jacobs actually identified “aged buildings” as one of the four elements for a city to be successful in Chapter 10 of

    The Need for Aged Buildings

    Condition 3: The district must mingle buildigs that vary in age and condition, including a good porportion of old ones.

    Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without without them.

  • 2 Andrew // Dec 11, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    I really think there could be a market for historical walking tours for out of town visitors in Tacoma. Pick people up here visiting them musuems and take them on a historical building tour in DT and then a historic home tour in the north slope. Folllowed by a dinner and pub crawl…Would you sign up?

  • 3 CA // Feb 18, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    The problem I have with some preservationists is their attachment to ALL old buildings in Tacoma. The building that sits at 6th and St. Helens(it is now a classic automobile gallery, and i think was once a Buick? dealership) is destined to be knocked down and the entire block turned into a mega mixed-use deveolopment. I understand these plans have been pushed back or perhaps delayed due to deteriorating market conditions.

    But honestly, this old building is just plane ugly and would serve the neighborhood and the city better if it were knocked down and replaced with a huge mixed-use development the developers have stated will
    include retail and a hotel.

    The Luzon is a great example of a building worthy of preservation.

    However, some preservationists(not all) see all old buildings as sacred ground and will give not an inch in their determination to save them all. Pick your battles wisely. Lets divert resources to truly unique and stiking old buildings, and let the lesser(uglier) ones meet their demise.

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