A public airing of a proposal to build a nine-story Pierce County administration building in Tacoma’s South End did not seem to change opinions about the project, but it revealed widespread support for a plan that some hope will benefit neighborhoods outside of the city’s downtown core.
“What this part of the city needs is investment,” said South Tacoma resident Matt Meckley. “It’s right there, and I think it’s really, really exciting.”
The proposal, estimated to cost at least $90 million, is headed to two decisive votes by the County Council on Feb. 3 and Feb. 10. It has been in the works for two years, but recently has come under fire from residents who believe Pierce County failed to inform the public adequately about the plan and missed an opportunity to bring more jobs downtown.
About 1,300 employees would be at the new site, while another 1,000 county criminal justice employees would continue to work downtown. Downtown would lose about 400 county workers.
Complaints about the proposal prompted three County Council members to host a town hall on the plan Thursday night at the Pierce County annex near the Tacoma Mall. It’s one of the sites that government officials hope to close and consolidate in the new administration building.
“I believe we are putting the cart before the horse,” said Ronnie Bush, a member of a group formed to oppose the building plan called Pierce County Together. “I don’t feel that transparency and accountability have taken place.”
She was joined at the forum by several other residents who believe the county should have sought more comments from residents before embarking on the construction of a building that is expected to serve the county for decades.
Generally, they want the county to build its administration building in Tacoma’s traditional downtown and to consider sites with better access to public transportation.
“This is not about one neighborhood against another. It’s about ‘What is the 100-year plan?’ ” asked Tacoma architect and former mayoral candidate Jim Merritt, meaning county leaders should be looking at plans that would serve residents well for a century.
But the crowded forum was filled with residents from East and South Tacoma who want the county to follow through on a proposal that they think could catalyze more business growth in their communities. They’re also eager to see Pierce County destroy and rebuild on the abandoned Puget Sound Hospital site, 215 S. 36th St.
“You’re not going to leave this garbage in East Tacoma? You’re not going to build this Taj Mahal downtown and leave this garbage in East Tacoma because some business leaders think you ought to?” asked Terry Wilmer, 49, who lives near the old hospital.
He was echoed by several other Lincoln District and McKinley Hill neighborhood residents.
“It’s not just when you grow that the city of Tacoma grows, but also the Eastside,” said Tony Miller of an East Tacoma group called First Creek Neighbors.
“I want my neighborhood to grow,” said Lincoln District resident Leslie Young.
Pierce County leaders began planning the new administration building in 2013 after a study concluded the county could save money by ending leases for rental properties, getting out of outdated buildings and consolidating services in a single headquarters.
They eyed the site of the former hospital because it sits on a 13-acre campus that the county owns, which would save some development costs.
A consultant looked at building downtown, but reported the structure would be far more expensive than the old hospital site because it would require an underground parking garage for 1,100 spaces that could cost as much as $46 million.
“We didn’t just do this on a whim,” said Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy.
Now, county officials say they’ll spend $303 million over 25 years if they don’t build a new administration building. They point to leases, capital improvements and employee wages that they can avoid by consolidating services.
“If the county does not move forward with this, there is a cost,” said Councilman Rick Talbert.
However, the county has not yet presented a final tally of the building’s projected cost. That won’t be revealed until next month’s meetings.
Supporters of the plan say it fits the county’s long-term needs because it could be expanded by building on the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department site a block away. That agency is expected to move into the proposed administration building.
“This is the best for the most growth. It’s the most efficient for the county,” said Cindy Edens, vice president at Seattle development firm Wright Runstad & Company.