Once a Landmark, Always a Landmark

How much longer those rooms could house low-income residents was on the minds of everyone crowded into Tully’s coffee shop at 6 a.m., directly across the street from the Winthrop. The city had been working for more than a decade to revitalize its urban core, with new museums, restored theaters, a convention center, condos, and a new branch campus of the University of Washington. Connecting it all together was a new light rail line. Its northern terminus in the Theater District just happened to be at the Winthrop’s doorstep.

So in 2003, when Winthrop owners decided to put the building on the market, there was serious concern among affordable-housing advocates that redeveloping the Winthrop would mean the loss of the 190 subsidized housing units in the building. According to the contract with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the subsidies were tied to the Winthrop itself, not the current residents and families. Additionally, transferring those credits elsewhere would involve transferring them all to a single building; splitting the credits into multiple projects was not an option according to HUD’s strict interpretation of the law governing the contract.

This strict interpretation left affordable housing agencies in a bind. It was unlikely any agency could build another 190-unit project in Tacoma. Which meant that if the Winthrop were sold and redeveloped as condos or as a hotel they would either have to change the law or lose the credits, an option that would put the residents back on the already long housing waiting list.

The Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) attempted to prevent the problem entirely by purchasing the building before any other developer. Peter Ansara, the THA executive director at the time, tried and failed to secure the building. The Winthrop stayed on the market.

Three years later, affordable-housing developer AF Evans secured an option to buy the Winthrop. It proposed fixing badly needed maintenance and structural issues, restoring the building’s grand Crystal Ballroom, and mixing in some market-rate units into the building. But in order to make the project viable, they asked for a $1 million loan from the City of Tacoma. This opened up the debate over the future of the Winthrop to the public, and thus political, sphere.

Mayor Bill Baarsma, a retired college professor at the University of the Puget Sound in Tacoma, saw that the AF Evans purchase would effectively rule out the Winthrop ever becoming a hotel again. He lobbied the City Council to reject the request for the loan, and called for a developer to restore the Winthrop as a hotel, harkening back to Tacoma’s relationship with the building.

And it wasn’t just Baarsma: a large number of Tacomans wanted to see it restored out of civic pride, the building representing to them a final piece of Tacoma’s self-image as a city pulling itself up by its own bootstraps.

Heeding Baarsma’s call was Tim Quigg, owner of a local construction firm. He called the early morning public meeting at Tully’s and invited all the stakeholders. Crowded into the coffee shop, he pitched his plan: the community could restore the building as a grand hotel and build new affordable units for the displaced tenants, if everyone was willing to work together.

“All real work happens before 8 a.m.,” Quigg told the bleary-eyed crowd. Loaded with too much coffee and packed tightly together in the small space, the crowd easily picked up his energy.

With the hope of a restored hotel, the Tacoma City Council voted against the $1 million loan to AF Evans, effectively cutting off their ability to buy the Winthrop. They had put all their eggs into Quigg’s basket.

The coffee shop meetings were open to tenants of the Winthrop, though only a small handful attended. Glenn Grigsby, a resident of the Winthrop for 15 years, spoke regularly to the crowd of officials and activists in the early morning coffee shop meetings. He favored the transition of the Winthrop to a hotel and wanted to see the residents and families spread out to “three or four or even five locations with 40 people in the community instead of 200.” His biggest worry was that “there would be less low income housing [if the Winthrop were redeveloped]. I am so grateful for HUD and Section 8,” he said, “It has helped me tremendously.”

Although the coffee shop meetings were fruitful for establishing principles that all sides could get behind, Quigg ultimately could not bring together the needed financing for the project. Instead, another developer, Prium Companies swooped in and bought the Winthrop, pledging to the residents and stakeholders that they would follow the vision the community had laid out. In a small twist of irony, the CEO of Prium was Peter Ansara, who had tried and failed to acquire the hotel as the director of the Tacoma Housing Authority three years earlier.

Meanwhile, Michael Mirra at the Tacoma Housing Authority worked with U.S. Sen. Patty Murray to pass legislation that would allow the residents to be transferred to two or more projects instead of a single project. They were also able to pass a law allowing for an alternate voucher plan that gave residents the ability to move from the Winthrop to anywhere in the country when the HUD contract on the building expired.

When asked if the community discussion in the coffee shop and the subsequent plan for the Winthrop had been successful, Mirra cautiously responded, “The story is not far enough advanced to answer the question.” Mirra remained hopeful, saying that Prium’s purchase of the building “was an act of civic patriotism.” But that was in May 2008.

Since then, Prium Company, like many developers, has been hit by the financial crisis. The City of Tacoma has worked with Prium to identify a parcel of land just south of downtown Tacoma for the developer to build the new affordable housing units, but the permits have not been issued and no work seems likely to start. Prium approached Mirra and the THA in June 2009 to see if they were interested purchasing the building.

Mirra’s response, as quoted in The News Tribune, was “We remain interested but uncertain.”

Thanks to the deep recessions and long road to recovery ahead, restoring the Winthrop Hotel might still be an impossible task. But when balancing the difficult choices between gentrification and affordable housing, Tacoma attempted to manage the problems as a community, gathering to talk about the issues — all over a simple cup of coffee.

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