Tacoma’s most recognizable landmark is primed to be the center of activity. The city has selected a developer with visions of converting Old City Hall into a synergistic multi-use facility of retail spaces, historical displays, professional offices and urban lofts.
City officials have selected Surge Tacoma to redevelop the historic landmark after reviewing five responses to its Request for Proposal to bring the massive brick icon of the City of Destiny after years of it sitting vacant and neglected.
“Surge Tacoma submitted a compelling proposal to reactivate the historic Old City Hall by infusing the building with uses that will appeal to our entire community — residents, entrepreneurs and visitors,” said Mayor Victoria Woodards in announcing the selection. “The redevelopment proposal aligns with the building’s storied history as a welcoming public place. It has the potential to be an economic catalyst while providing affordable housing that helps ensure those who work in Tacoma can continue to live here as well.”
Surge Tacoma presented a plan, which should start construction in mid-2019, that will have a bit of everything, particularly bringing back the rooftop restaurant overlooking the clock tower that has sat dormant for decades and street-level retail shops that all but disappeared before the turn of the millennium.
Other features set for the 125-year-old building include a bar in the former city jail cells in the basement, offices on the third and fourth floors, and 40 micro apartments on the fifth floor. Another interesting feature of the building is that it plans to have space for a business incubator run by Startup253 that will provide business advice and services for entrepreneurs.
But wait, there is still more in store for the 55,000-square-foot building. Tacoma Historical Society will have office and exhibit space to showcase the building’s past. And of course, there will be tours of the clock tower from time to time once the building opens, which could happen as early as 2021.
“This plan is meant to utilize all spaces in the Old City Hall rather than wasting any area of this unique building,” Surge’s proposal stated. “Picture weddings and events within the clock tower itself, with restaurants perched just below on the rooftop overlooking the mountain and water. Tourists and locals could shop at unique local retailers before taking a tour of the historic space or heading home for the evening all in the same building.”
Eli Moreno, managing member of Surge, is no stranger to rejuvenating historic buildings in Tacoma. He most recently turned the nearby 1888-built Union Club and the 1911-built Ludwig Family Drugstore in South Tacoma into shared work offices.
“Old City Hall is an amazing icon that should be synonymous with the vitality of our town,” said Moreno. “Our goal is to preserve its history and original materials while reconfiguring and modernizing the building’s spaces into thoughtfully designed gathering spots for eating, living, working, playing and learning. We envision Old City Hall becoming a reflection of – and a monument to – Tacoma’s talent and diversity.”
News of Old City Hall’s future is just the latest chapter of its storied life that spans the life of Tacoma itself. The former center of city government was built in 1893 at a time when the city was only a decade old. It was specifically built to stand tall and grand along the skyline as a way to set itself from other boom towns in the region as each city vied to be the anchor of commerce for Washington State. It was a port city after all and landed the terminus for the Northern Pacific’s transcontinental railroad tracks.
The building’s clock was donated by Hugh Wallace on Christmas Day of 1904 to memorialize his 12-year-old daughter, Mildred, who had died the previous year. Wallace was a businessman turned diplomat and would go on to serve as the ambassador to France, where he helped negotiate the terms of the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I. He signed the treaty on behalf of the United States.
The building operated as Tacoma’s City Hall until city departments outgrew the floors and moved into the County-City Building in 1959. It then served as a center for shops and restaurants before falling victim to the lull of downtown shopping born by the development of the Tacoma Mall. Plans came and went without much change as the decades passed.
The city bought it in 2015 for $4 million after the building began showing signs of neglect and there were no renovation plans under discussion. The city had first hoped that the Portland-based redeveloper of historic properties, McMenamins would take on the building after it finished its nearby hotel and destination pub, Elks Temple, since it sits across the street. But those redevelopment plans dragged on, so McMenamins opted out so it could concentrate on its $34 million project.
It is set to open next year, right as renovations of Old City Hall start.