Tuesday, March 29, 2011

South Tacoma Connections: TIME

Time is running out for one of the most significant architectural structures in South Tacoma. The Old Gray Middle School and Barlow Annex complex at 3901 South 60th Street will be demolished this summer unless an acceptable plan is developed and implemented to re-purpose this building. After a period of almost six years, no group or developer has submitted a solution to preserve these buildings, which date back to 1910 and the very founding of the Tacoma School District. The Tacoma School District #10 (TSD10) has instead designated $1,000,000.00 to demolish it and put it in a landfill. Once again, we are confronted with the conflict of cost and heritage. What can be done?

When Good Buildings get Abandoned – Finding New Use
The difficulty with finding a viable new mission for this valuable structure rests with the very ground it sits on. Because there will still be a working elementary school on the campus, the school district is required to retain a ten-acre buffer of school property. The unused land and buildings cannot be sold and TSD10 will retain ownership of the 3.2 acre property and the 99,000 square foot building complex. The property cannot be returned to the tax rolls or owned by any group(s) that occupies it.

The zoning is R-2 (single-family residential), but since this is also school property, any new use must not conflict with the educational environment and cannot take resources from the overall TSD10 K-12 mission. Strangely, a few of the activities possible with a conditional use permit would be a surface mine (probably wouldn’t go down too well with the neighbors), a detox center (ditto), or a school public safety facility… in fact, the State Police recently used Old Gray for search and rescue training. View the site here.


The school district has made a year-long effort to solicit public input, inform the neighborhood, and seek a new use for these buildings, but this outreach was to no avail until recently. In February, a small group of involved citizens put forth an idea that will meet the needs of the school district and comply with existing zoning and land-use activities – the Tacoma Outreach Center – website here.

The Tacoma Outreach Center (TOC) would be a resource center, re-training center, social center and support center. Though it will be open to the public, the TOC would primarily serve a very under-provided-for group: the women veterans amongst us – as well as any honorably discharged vet. Veterans, with all their tax-payer-funded training, would be able to put that training back into the building and outreach program, while learning additional trade skills from each other and professionals during the building’s restoration and use.

In keeping with the preservation element of this idea, the proposed TOC could benefit greatly from placement on the historic register. Historic status would open up a wide range of options that fit perfectly with the facilities, rooms, and capabilities of the complex; furthermore, it would offer potential for arts/crafts production, assembly facilities, cultural institutions, professional offices, personal services, public safety/service facilities, parks/recreation and retail as incidental use (such as handmade items for sale and perhaps a coffee house canteen open to the public).

The TOC has the support of local and district VFWs and the South Tacoma Neighborhood Council. Supporters have communicated with Congressman Dicks and Senator Murray’s offices, and found encouraging interest.

The Buildings Themselves
The Old Gray / Barlow Complex is worthy of saving for both structural and historical significance. It has a massive theatre, kitchen, basement gymnasium, classroom space, shop space and plenty of history to be preserved, restored and shared for generations to come. The buildings are structurally sound though sorely neglected. They have weathered at least 3 earthquakes (in the case of Gray, with its unique internal flying buttress bones), and have deep reinforced basements to serve as potential emergency shelters.

Gray Middle School

Barlow Annex

The complex is located just off the Water Ditch trail, within walking distance to the South Tacoma Sounder Station and close to the Tacoma Mall. If, as envisioned, it could be used as the Tacoma Outreach Center, it would be strategically situated between the Seattle and American Lake VA hospitals. The Tacoma Outreach Center would provide a unique and vibrant place for service members and their families, veterans, military retiree’s, widows – anyone connected to the military. We envision it will become a destination and rest stop along the bike path to listen to music, view gardens, and have homemade organic root beer (much like Bavarian roadhouse stops).

Time to be Conscientious
If you’ve read this far then you’re possibly one of the few people who understand that the “greenest” building is the one that is already built. Preserving a building makes financial and environmental sense. The public’s investment is already embedded in the 99,000 square feet of Barlow/Gray, and time has given it historical and economic significance. This investment of energy and resources equates to true public capital; so why destroy it, only to waste more energy in its disposal – not to mention eventual possible rebuilding?

The Gray / Barlow complex is but one illustration of a growing need. Since there is no established benefit in continuing to maintain and improve a property which no longer “pencils out” in terms of depreciation vs. cost, schools and churches are often the first to be lost when there is no immediate use for them. This is the core idea behind our proposal for an “Embedded Energy Credit” (EEC). Such a program would fill a need for schools, churches, and other property in the control of non-profit (non-tax-paying) or faith-based organizations that do not qualify for the Historic Preservation Tax credits in our existing code (which offset improvement costs). However, if organizations received an EEC for a percentage of the total energy value, it might be a sufficient incentive for salvation of the structures.

In Tacoma, we own our power, water and waste management agencies, so it may be simpler than stakeholders might anticipate to arrange an EEC offsetting those costs. The savings would be useful to the non-profit entities and might help jumpstart a new wave of historic preservation for all owners of landmarks within the City of Tacoma. This innovative concept is being mentioned here as an integral part of inviting practical preservation dialog to defend against the loss of significant historic buildings.

Time Will Tell

Inside the Tacoma Mausoleum (just a few blocks due north of the Barlow/Gray school) is a 1,000-year time capsule sealed in 1910 and slated for opening in 2910. Next to the time capsule are the tombs of Orin Watts Barlow and his wife, Letitia, a couple who probably did more for South Tacoma than any other since. Orin Barlow was the first School District President and a school board member for six years. When he died in 1911, Barlow was one of the first persons to be placed in the Alaskan granite mausoleum, the only one of its kind west of the Mississippi. Shortly thereafter, Edison High was renamed in his honor. The Barlow Annex (designed by architect Frederick Heath, who also designed the Mausoleum) represents the best of our historical spirit and can serve for generations to come if we take the initiative to preserve it. The Tacoma Outreach Center may well be our best hope for doing so.

The founders of this area were skilled in thinking ahead – even in 1,000-year increments. They fully believed their creations would live on into posterity, and the quality of their construction holds up to that possibility. It is our obligation to honor their conviction and ingenuity.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Proposal for the Edison Gray Middle School/Barlow Annex

Proposal for the Edison Gray Middle School/Barlow Annex

By the Tacoma Outreach Center

Background: The South Tacoma community will lose a major portion of its historic and cultural fabric if current plans for the 1935 Edison Middle School and 1910 Barlow Annex proceed. The Tacoma School District has declared the property surplus, failed to put it on the historic register, and plans to demolish the structure.

Proposal: Work with the School District, the City of Tacoma, the South Tacoma Neighborhood Council, and the South Tacoma Business District, Veterans’ Groups (ie VFW, AMVETS, DAV, American Legion) local, state and federal agencies to create what would be called the Tacoma Outreach Center (TOC). The TOC is envisioned as a public/private enterprise governed by a non-profit structure focused on providing a 24/7 facility for Military Veterans, their families and children. The only requirement for basic services will be an honorable discharge certified with a valid DD Form 214.

Discussion: The Edison Gray Middle School/Barlow Annex is named both for the local neighborhood (Edison) and for Capt Robert Gray
whose exploration of the mouth of the Columbia River in 1792 established the U.S. claim to the Oregon territory. The buildings comprise a unique mix of old and new

and have had significant work done to both meet current building code and be compliant with the Americans with Disability Act. Some recent work has been done to repair a leaking roof, and the complex is provided with a perimeter fence, security cameras, and has upgraded electrical and internet capabilities. It includes a gymnasium, kitchen, classrooms, an inner courtyard, lab spaces, basements storage, and a theatre.

The creation of the TOC is intended to fill a need for veterans. The TOC will be a one-stop location for a wide variety of veterans needs with a special focus on women veterans – a population under serviced by current VA services. As envisioned, the TOC would proceed through a crawl, walk, and run approach to operations.

It is not intended to be a residential facility. Veterans, staff, and volunteers will have to meet fairly stringent standards of behavior and conduct. The TOC will provide social activities for music, theatre, the arts, and education. Veterans Service Organizations will be permitted to use office space for client intake and assistance.

A special Women’s-only wing will provide a safe place for women veterans.

The proximity of the TOC to the local middle school, residential housing in the neighborhood, and close proximity to bus and rail transportation make this an ideal location for such a facility.

Veterans from various VA work skills programs would be employed to restore and upgrade the facilities and provide not only jobs but training in a wide variety of skills. Space would be available for those veterans without a home to have storage for belongings while they seek shelter and work opportunities. Again, this is not a residential facility and many details will need to be fleshed out to preclude difficulties with the neighboring school and residential area.

Funding will come from a variety of local, state, and federal programs and full usage of the recently passed "Formerly Owned Resources for Veterans to Express Thanks for Service Act," or "FOR VETS Act of 2010," which adds select veterans organizations to the list of groups eligible to apply to receive surplus goods. These items range from laptops and desktop computers to dental supplies and generators. The law was signed in December 2010.


I know this seems like a big undertaking, but we can at least try. I can’t think of a better way to use the school all of our ancestors in this community helped create than to help veterans and their families that have given so much for all of us.