The Tacoma Sun


Tacoma’s Upper Floor Malaise

By Morgan Alexander

My work in Tacoma’s commercial real estate market has made me acutely aware of obstacles and opportunities for revitalization. Coupled with my interest in local historical architecture, one topic presents itself over and over again: the under-utilization of space or more specifically the under-utilization of upper floors in multi-storied commercial buildings.


Tacoma has seen a great deal of disinvestment since the 1960s. The gains of the recent real estate boom could revert back unless property owners are especially diligent and creative. The community also has a responsibility in maintaining awareness of conditions and not accepting blighted conditions – applying pressure to property owners if necessary. While I don’t see the City of Tacoma instituting a Vacant Property Registration Program for this particular issue, there may be incentives that could be more aggressively marketed to property owners.


Granted, even if all the square footage in the buildings that contain vacant (or missing) upper floors were suddenly made available, it probably wouldn’t be enough to save Russell. But at the same time, it makes me wonder what the potential of this space could be: studio space for artists, office space for community groups, not to mention market rate office and retail. A little bit here and there adds up to a substantial amount. And right now, in this economy, we need every little bit we can muster! Better utilizing unused space and replacing formerly existing space could contribute to more people using neighborhood business districts. It would also contribute to better cash flow for the owners who could then be in a better position to contribute to civic improvement projects… such as streetcars.


Based on my conversations with property owners, the reasons for not utilizing space vary from a simple lack of interest (more common with non-local or absentee owners) to a perception that the costs involved outweigh the benefits. Another common link is property owners who own the buildings they operate in. Often they are too close to see the opportunity, are too busy to make it a priority, or are cash strapped (real or perceived) to make the investment necessary for occupancy of the unused space.



Horsfall Building (aka Big Vac), 809 South 38th

One of my favorite business districts is the Lincoln District. I like the food, the stores, and the old buildings. Did you know a streetcar used to go from downtown to the Lincoln District?

One of my favorite buildings is the Horsfall on 38th and Yakima. It looks like a massive building because of all the frontage on 38th, but it sits on a shallow parcel. The building is owner-occupied and has been a janitorial supply house for as long as I can remember.

Status: entire upper floor vacant.
Potential square footage: 8,000


Vien Dong building, 38th & South Yakima

One of my favorite restaurants is Vien Dong also at the corner of South 38th & Yakima Avenue. Even though the owners aren’t Thai, I think they make some of the best phad Thai in town (not to mention their pho!). As you stand outside, notice the wide radius of the street corner – this is where streetcars used to turn and go down Yakima Avenue.

Status: entire upper floor vacant
Potential square footage: 5,700


Fraternity Hall, 1111-1115 Tacoma Avenue

One re-occurring theme in downtown Tacoma is the number of historic buildings that had upper floors damaged by fire or earthquake that were never rebuilt. The classic Waddell building on Pacific Avenue housing the Pacific Grill is one such example.

In the 1926 photograph taken above from 11th Street, you can see the Fraternity Hall building in background with “A. Gehri & Co.” painted on it. As you can see, it was quite a bit taller than it is today. A fire destroyed the upper floors and were never replaced.

Status: missing upper floors never replaced
Potential square footage: 10,000-20,000


The Lorenz Building, 1552-56 Market Street

The Lorenz Building was built in 1889 in the heart of Tacoma’s then Japantown. From 1899-1914, it was home to the Astor House, also known as the Hiroshimaya Hotel, the first major Japanese Hotel in Tacoma. In the mid 1920’s, the building housed the Columbus Hotel and the Tacoma Ju Jitsu School. The Lorenz Building today, minus three stories, is home to the Tahoma Indian Center.

Status: upper three floors never replaced
Potential square footage: 11,700


Bradley Block building, 701-03 Pacific Avenue

This old building (1890) has been home to a hotel, apartments, and an architects office (Liddle & Jones). It currently houses Suite133 and Capers. However, the upper floor has been vacant for a few decades. On a recent tour, layers of wallpaper and paint revealed the fashions of the early 20th Century.

Status: entire upper floor vacant
Potential square footage: 2,625


The Rock Pizza building, 1918-1926 Jefferson Avenue

Here’s another building that used to be taller. Sad.
Status: missing upper floors never replaced
Potential square footage: 6,700


Lincolnshire Hotel, 901-907 Pacific Avenue

The building on this corner at 9th and Pacific has only a few retail shops occupied. The upper floors have sat vacant for years. This property was mentioned as part of a redevelopment proposal to house a new Russell Investment headquarters.
Status: entire upper floor vacant
Potential square footage: 10,000


Total potential square footage: 64,725


This by no means is a complete list of buildings with underutilized or missing upper floors. The intent of this article is meant to illustrate that sizable opportunities exist today all around us. By increasing the intensity of use in our existing assets we can place greater pressure on developing properties such as surface parking lots to create more walkable and sustainable neighborhoods.



Archive photos: Tacoma Public Library

published October 29th, 2008

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Downtown Resident // Jul 22, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    Loved this article! I spend a fair amount of time walking around downtown looking at the architecture and wonder if all those upper floors really ARE vacant. You’ve now shown me they are 🙂 As someone trained in the profession of architecture it presents somewhat of a conundrum…build vs restore…I love to build and crave modern design but lets fill in some of our existing first shall we?!

Leave a Comment