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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Continuation of an Era

Posted by on Wed, Sep 30, 2009 at 9:27 AM

In the 1980s, Paul Schell, before he was mayor of Seattle, ran a development company that tore down the eye teeth of downtown Tacoma—a row of 19th-century brick buildings along Pacific Avenue. The buildings were protected as a landmark, and the landmarks commission refused to give permission for the demolition, but it didn't matter. With the backing of the mayor, who had future-stars in his eyes, Schell got his way and razed the past.

Then, he built nothing.

The development fell apart. And central downtown Tacoma fell into even uglier disrepair than it had already been in. The space was, and is, a parking lot. (And this is reason #5,899 why Tacomans hate Seattle.)

One building escaped the Schelling: the Luzon. It dated from 1891, was designed by Chicago skyscraper pioneers Daniel Burnham and John Root (one of only two of their buildings on the West Coast), and was a slender and extraordinary-looking thing, even in its neglected state. It had been empty since the mid-'80s.

I woke up Saturday morning to the news that the Luzon building was being demolished that minute. Despite protests and even an appeal to a judge for a last-minute stay of execution that ran into the early morning Saturday, the Luzon building ultimately was a victim of the market. Developers couldn't make it pencil out—just like they couldn't make it pencil out when all the structures the Luzon leaned on came down—and city government idiotically only saw a future in tearing down the past. This in a city where historic buildings—Union Station, the University of Washington Tacoma—have, more than any other single force, heroically revived what was once not a dying but a dead metropolis.

  • Peter Haley/The News Tribune
And: the demolition cost more than it would have cost to make the building safe, to gird it in order to keep it simply from falling down (the soft, neglected brick-and-mortar of its north and west sides were leaning, so lanes on the streets below had been closed for months). But why do that when you still can't make the money pan out? Um, maybe because this economy is not the forever economy?? Surely, Tacoma has learned about the business of rediscovery, and learned what is needed to make it happen??

  • Peter Haley/The News Tribune
But at least this way, when the new, much-touted "green" parking garage/office building opens across the street soon, nobody will have to look at an historic jeweleyesore.

Fuck you, Tacoma city government. It's something I never could have said when I worked at The News Tribune (1999-2005), even when it needed saying. If you didn't learn this lesson in the '80s, then apparently you never will: If you make your historic buildings dependent on the market, then you will lose them. Seattle has a public authority that protects buildings. Tacoma has nothing like it. The city manager and council, in this case, blessed the authority of the developer, like the 1980s mayor before him, and voila! Rubble.

This makes me particularly sad because I love Tacoma. It is a complicated city with what is often a heartbreaking narrative, but it is never dull. I feel guilty for not having known this was going on. The Trib covered the story in detail but I'd checked out of Tacoma this summer, or I'd have read the words of always-awesome columnist Peter Callaghan, which are worth revisiting here and here. (The latter is written as a session between Tacoma and its psychoanalyst—an overworked character if ever there was one.) Here is the story on the day of the demolition; you can hear the pain and resignation in architectural historian Michael Sullivan's voice when the longtime Tacoma champion tells the reporter, "I thought we were just a lot more sophisticated on historic preservation stuff."

At the turn of the millennium, the Luzon was the lone building involved in an art installation that stretched the entire length of what Tacoma had lost in those downtown blocks; it was a memorial and a prayer for the future. White panels with changing light projected on them and a giant reflecting pool spanned the huge, several-block-long parking lot that met the Luzon on one end, in a temporary work by Seattle artist/architect Iole Alessandrini. You could still see the remains of the earlier buildings, where the demolition crews had left up chunks of wall. The installation was only activated at night—when this area of downtown was most haunted by crime and bad juju. People had avoided the area for years; now they were turning out to see it at midnight, at 3 am, at sunrise.

The side of the Luzon building, with its scars from having been separated from its neighbors (see the photograph at right), was a physical memory of what had happened. You'd never have thought that anyone would have forgotten.


Comments (36) RSS

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TVDinner 1
Paul Schell should be hung from his toenails for this.
Posted by TVDinner http:// on September 30, 2009 at 9:44 AM · Report this
Rotten666 2
good article. I will never understand how people can gut their own history. It just makes me sad.
Posted by Rotten666 on September 30, 2009 at 9:45 AM · Report this
Catalina Vel-DuRay 3
I was in downtown Tacoma on Sunday morning and saw that they had torn it down. I share your dismay for what I always thought of as the "Golden Chopsticks" building.

I fear for the Winthrop Hotel and the old brewery.
Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay on September 30, 2009 at 9:52 AM · Report this
Max Solomon 4
Seattle's authority didn't save the music box, it didn't stop the recent desecration of the ceramic tile facade at 2nd & stewart, or the debasement of the colisseum by banana republic, and so on.

Americans cannot see the value of the past, or of the pristine, because we're too busy grubbing after the future. and $.
Posted by Max Solomon on September 30, 2009 at 10:01 AM · Report this
Great piece Jen.
Posted by LH on September 30, 2009 at 10:29 AM · Report this
I'm 85 Years Old 6
I like your articles and how much you care.
Posted by I'm 85 Years Old on September 30, 2009 at 10:30 AM · Report this
It was a fine building - someone must have bribed the city people to make this happen.

Oh, a bribe in cash? No in Tacoma, oh, no.

Corruption explains a lot.
Posted by Wise Guy on September 30, 2009 at 10:40 AM · Report this
Great post -- what a tragedy.

But I think you should replace Callaghan as the News Tribune's local columnist -- while he was right on this issue, he can be a major crank.
Posted by ochotona on September 30, 2009 at 10:42 AM · Report this
Fnarf 9
Oh, no, that's terrible. I also like Tacoma, even downtown Tacoma. What's left of it. And you are absolutely right -- preserved old buildings are the only thing Tacoma has going for it now. This is terrible news for that city. Eventually the only thing left down there will be that neo-brutalist parking garage (which makes Seattle Central look like a field of flowers).
Posted by Fnarf on September 30, 2009 at 11:23 AM · Report this
Argh! This is horrible.

Great piece Jen, but you just made my blood pressure shoot up to dangerous levels.
Posted by gnossos on September 30, 2009 at 11:45 AM · Report this
Tacoma is hopeless. they can't even leverage what few assets they have.
Posted by jkm on September 30, 2009 at 11:56 AM · Report this
I've heard that standard practice is to consider any building older than 20 years as having zero value unless proven otherwise. This is like considering a forest as having zero value until it is "harvested".
Posted by joshuadf on September 30, 2009 at 12:26 PM · Report this
Sir Learnsalot 13
Posted by Sir Learnsalot on September 30, 2009 at 12:33 PM · Report this
That's what we get for having a part time council and a major who is merely ceremonial. The city manager has been caught red handed doing shady deals without the council consent. They did not as much as reprimand him. As long as the manager can do as he pleases, we are fucked.
Posted by T-Townj on September 30, 2009 at 12:36 PM · Report this
Was just down in Portland last week and that was one of the things that stood out for me; how well so many old buildings had been preserved.

I think it rather unfortunate that as we transition through the urban growth cycle, the highlights of the past are seen as no more than obstacles in ransacking the land.
Posted by Derek on September 30, 2009 at 12:46 PM · Report this
TVDinner 16
At least Spokane has always been too poor and too far removed from coastal trends to tear down its old buildings. It actually has some lovely ones downtown.
Posted by TVDinner http:// on September 30, 2009 at 1:14 PM · Report this
A local "illustrated commentary" on the Tacoma Historic Preservation vs. City Manager issue:…
Posted by CLAW #6 on September 30, 2009 at 1:27 PM · Report this
D. Tooley 18
Nice to see a Seattle writer get it right when doing a Tacoma story..
Posted by D. Tooley on September 30, 2009 at 1:32 PM · Report this
This is a disgrace. I feel so sorry for the residents of Tacoma that care, obviously the city council does not
Posted by Jim Brown on September 30, 2009 at 1:37 PM · Report this
RR Anderson 20
I snuck into the luzon to live blog the building's destruction. I can tell you I almost died repeatedly that day.…

Eric Anderson, tacoma's city manager is a big and cruel man.
Posted by RR Anderson on September 30, 2009 at 1:41 PM · Report this
Cascadian 21
Much of my extended family lives in the Tacoma area, and I appreciate a lot of what the city has to offer. I think they've got two big problems that contribute to things like this:

1. They have an inferiority complex about Seattle that manifests not as a desire to improve but to blame too many of the city's problems on its larger and more important neighbor.
2. City government is pathetic and while not exactly corrupt, way too influenced by elite insiders who don't give a crap about the public.

These two factors play off each other. The council and mayor do a crappy job, but can point fingers at Seattle when things go wrong.

Fixing Tacoma would mean accepting their city's flaws and benefits on their own terms without reference to Seattle, accepting that the city exists in a regional context, and opening up their government to a broader group of interests. Integrating Tacoma Link with Central Link light rail and extending it with service to key neighborhoods, when it finally happens, will help a lot.
Posted by Cascadian on September 30, 2009 at 2:03 PM · Report this
I drive by the Luzon every morning and I feel so sad now everytime I see the rubble that is there now. Tacoma just hurt itself and I cannot completely comprehend why seeing this building demolished makes me so sad, but I feel that we are losing something beautiful that can never be replaced.
Posted by goldcats on September 30, 2009 at 5:29 PM · Report this
RR Anderson 23
Tacoma City Manager Eric Anderson said "There is no hope for the luzon"

I however care less for him
Posted by RR Anderson on September 30, 2009 at 6:16 PM · Report this
there are a lot of arcane facts to go along with this that don't really matter. the fact is that the city manager blew it. that city council did nothing until the 11th hour is telling. of course, when the announcement was made to council that the manager was ordering demolition, there was very little time between that and the demo date (a week and a half) for any sort of community opposition to organize and light a fire under city council.

the official line is that there was no alternative. this is bullshit. if the city officials actually believed this, they're idiots. as jen points out, there was always the shoring option, at a lower cost than demo. the decision to go with out and out demolition was a policy decision made without city council, that was not predicated on public safety. either path would have addressed the emergency situation. other factors influencing the decision to demolish - cost, removal of blight, etc - are not germane to the "emergency" condition...meaning that the city also bypassed its own historic board and city regulations protecting historic buildings.

the manager and others also played up the idea that the site is a festering pit of asbestos and lead. also wrong. the asbestos was barely high enough to be even considered asbestos laden, and there was not enough lead in the building to even require any sort of special handling.

efforts by very influential people (with resources i might add) to get the city to alter course fell on completely deaf ears. inexplicably...

to be fair, there was a period of time the city of tacoma was working to get a development project into the building...but once that lost momentum, the city then really pushed on the gas to demo the building.

i am so freakin mad about this i can't possibly describe it. i want to see heads roll. it is so goddamn frustrating to see such a potentially nice city continually shoot itself in the foot for dumbass reasons.
Posted by rothbart on September 30, 2009 at 7:09 PM · Report this
This article has more content than the whole series from the TNT. Tacoma is......tacky.
Posted by el aguila on October 1, 2009 at 3:44 AM · Report this
The newscast(s) on the Northwest channel in Seattle showed the demolition anan interview with the demolition contractor, who explained that nothing was holding the building up. The assumption seemed to be that nothing could be done for the building, which is untrue. No doubt, lots of people were taken in by it..

While Seattle may have a somewhat better system, believe me, there are plenty of development pressures in Seattle and at least a few unscrupulous people, who are more than happy to lie and reap money and rewards, in order to help those who would tear down valuable historical buildings. Shame on them!
Posted by Kam on October 1, 2009 at 10:03 AM · Report this
I would also like to add that the destruction of the Luzon is not a reason to insult Tacoma in general or to compare it negatively with Seattle.
Posted by Kam on October 1, 2009 at 11:46 AM · Report this
Sad day for Tacoma. This gives me reason to make changes in my city's council. If this is the person they appoint as city manager, then I need to vote more sensible people into the council. We also need to make our mayor more involved in our city's government and not just a figurehead.

You will be missed Luzon aka Golden Chopsticks.
Posted by slunk33 on October 1, 2009 at 12:55 PM · Report this
What a bunch of overly sentimental jerks. The Luzon was a piece of junk that should have been removed long ago. There are plenty of historical objects in this town that have been restored or may be restored that have much more significance than the Luzon. Even the name Luzon brings up the thought of barf.

And the guy that says he snuck in to the building with his diapers and such is a real case. Had he been injured while in the building you can be sure he would have brought suit against all the deep pockets he could find.
Posted by reasonableone on October 1, 2009 at 1:02 PM · Report this
Pierce County owned the building for a great deal of time and could have added a new roof. %^&$ *&^, Pierce County!
Posted by amocat on October 1, 2009 at 1:53 PM · Report this
You know, Tacoma has actually saved quite a few historic buildings. Just not this one, unfortunately. I'd like to highlight the Elks Temple, which will soon become perhaps the coolest McMenamin's yet (and that's saying a lot). For years it was on the verge of being torn down (by man or by nature via man's neglect) but the City of Tacoma doggedly staved off the bulldozers.

I liked TVdinner's comment, "At least Spokane has always been too poor ... to tear down its old buildings. It actually has some lovely ones downtown." This comment totally applies to Tacoma as well. I think it's rather hypocritical for anyone in the Seattle area to blast Tacoma for failing to save the Luzon as many historic Seattle buildings have been torn down in the name of progress. I have no data to support this, but I'm willing to bet that Tacoma has far more restored historic buildings in its downtown per square mile than Seattle does.

I did not know that Paul Schell was the developer who tore down all the Luzon's historic neighbors and then built nothing there. Pretty dispicable.

Totally agree with Graves that the News Trib's Peter Callaghan is terrific. We're lucky to have him. Whoever disagrees with that in general terms or in relation to his coverage of the Luzon saga is a fool.
Posted by NSHDscott on October 1, 2009 at 3:26 PM · Report this
Its not so bad that they tore the old buildings down. What is bad is that they left vacant lots. schell is the only type of developer Tacoma can dig up...a third rate opportunist with no money. Big hat with no cattle.
Posted by el aguila on October 1, 2009 at 3:34 PM · Report this
@29. I'm gonna hazard a guess you don't know what the hell you're talking about with regard to history and what is historic. So fine if you don't think the Luzon was worth saving, but don't be an ass and use words like "significance" unless you know what you mean.

@31. Seattle actually has a hell of a lot of historic buildings that have been restored. And there are many historic districts: Pioneer Square, Harvard-Belmont, Pike Place Market, Ballard, Columbia City, etc. The difference is that there has also been a lot of new development. And Seattle, after the turn of the century, started building some BIG buildings: Northern Life Tower, Smith Tower, etc. This did not really occur in Tacoma. So, there is not as much 2 to 5 story Victorian character in the core commercial district in Seattle--Tacoma seems more "historic" because there are very few competing buildings obscuring the view of the old buildings.

Consider: In Seattle, King Street Station and Union Station are both restored or being restored. Pioneer Square is nearly 90 urban acres of densely packed commercial buildings from the 1890s. Pike Place Market is a functional producers' market that has been doing business for 100 years. Other areas, like the Pike-Pine autorow corridor, aren't landmarks or historic districts, but are very intact. The mansion districts on Capitol Hill, Queen Anne, and the Olmstead Boulevards that link Ravenna, Green Lake, Mt Baker, etc are still intact. Seattle has a very very strong preservation program and ethic that has fought some big battles over the years and operates at a high level.

Yes, I think Tacoma has great potential and great character. But it is not very useful to try to compare it favorably to Seattle--in terms of historic preservation, Seattle still wins.
Posted by rothbart2 on October 1, 2009 at 5:08 PM · Report this
Hey write so beautifully...I tried to warn 'em...about Eric Anderson City Mangler...remember the interviews at City Hell with the 3 candidates (cough cough) Anderson was a slickster! Peter sat right in front of me. My he's handsome!

your tacoma pal, Tressie
Posted by Tressie on October 1, 2009 at 6:36 PM · Report this
hoovertac 35
Good article, and a lot of insightful posts as well. But with all due respect, a lot f us Tacomans don't go around blaming Seattle for everything. It may come as a suprise for some, but a lot of us like Seattle, it's a great city...that needs resources from the entire Puget Sound to function by the way. As a life long Tacoma Resident (who works in Seattle) I think it's iteresting how Tacoma has been one of the most opely disrespected cities in Western WA (just watch any Almost Live rerun) only to be told we have a self esteem problem? What's up with that? True, this city has a histry of political, design & racial missteps to reconcile. But a lot of people deserve credit for helping this city improve. Gone is the smelter, the stench. But even though lifers like me are finally learning how to feel good about this place I dont know if others outside the city limites would be just as willing.
Posted by hoovertac on October 6, 2009 at 7:31 AM · Report this
thank you Jen - you're right we were working to the very last minute to save Luzon and valid plans for its reuse had been put on the table to the city manager weeks before. All efforts rejected. Don't know the insides of why.

But the fault doesn't solely lie with the city government. Years and years and years of building owners of Luzon leaving it to disrepair and neglect are more to blame actually. No one is pointing fingers at them, yet they refused to do the minimum maintenance required such as keeping the roof from leaking and securing it from vandalism in order to stabilize it.

When I had the keys to Luzon for staging Season of Light 10 years ago, floors and beams were so rotted and dangerous - it is a miracle it valiantly stood another 10 years waiting for its owner to do the right thing and stabilize it. That never happened.

Tragic loss to a national treasure - but fault is legitimately parsed out to ALL the players involved in Luzon who failed to value it enough to do the right thing.
Karen Knipher - former chairperson - Season of Light Committee
Posted by dkknipher on October 7, 2009 at 10:47 AM · Report this

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