Federal Building empty and pricey as it turns 100, but might become home to city offices

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 27, 2013 

Considering it's a downtown landmark marking its centennial, Bellingham's Federal Building is mighty quiet these days.

The building at Magnolia Street and Cornwall Avenue was full of federal workers when the city took over ownership of the historic building from the federal government in 2004, but since then those agencies have found homes elsewhere. Only a branch of the U.S. Postal Service remains, and its long-term presence isn't guaranteed.

There are only two other tenants at the moment - offices for Whatcom Symphony Orchestra and for Bellingham Public Development Authority. The building's other 12 suites are empty. The basement, once offices, is being used for storage.

It's the first time in the building's 100 years that it has been so empty, but those quiet spaces will become lively again if the city of Bellingham decides to relocate some city workers there.

"It's probably best suited for public offices," said Ted Carlson, Bellingham director of public works. "We're excited to get it filled up."

The Federal Building is one of more than two dozen city-owned buildings being analyzed for their long-term use and expenses. The goal, Carlson said, is to see whether city programs can be more efficiently run, even to the extent of disposing of some of the buildings.

It might make sense to move city workers into the Federal Building, he said, if the cost of doing so pencils out.

"It's expensive to move people," Carlson said. "We want to make sure we do a proper analysis."

Results of the analysis could be presented to the City Council in a few months, he said. If officials decide to shift workers into the Federal Building, that likely won't happen until 2014, so next year's city budget can include money for the move, Carlson said.

BEAUTY OF A BUILDING

Built on the site of a sandstone hill, the three-story Federal Building was an eye-catching structure when it opened in 1913. It cost $284,000 to build, a hefty sum at the time.

Its Italian Renaissance style features a steel frame covered with stone masonry, round arches, decorated cornices and detailed exterior designs.

While much of the original exterior remains, the interior spaces have gone through assorted changes as tenants have come and gone. For example, the main entrance originally had a high ceiling with a skylight, but that's now hidden by a dropped ceiling and equipment.

Still, the building's wooden windows with brass hardware, its terrazzo and marble hallways and its seldom-used but well-preserved Federal Courtroom hint at its more elegant past.

"It was designed as a real showcase," said Jim Long, executive director of the Bellingham Public Development Authority. "If those things were brought back, it would be a jewel."

However it could cost up to $16 million to fully upgrade the building and restore it to its original glory, according to a 2005 report. Major changes also would require special approval, because the building is on the National Register of Historic Places and the Washington State Heritage Register

Charging tenants the cost of such a major overhaul would make rents for the building uncompetitive, Carlson said. Beyond that, the city prefers to use the building in ways that won't directly compete with private owners of commercial and retail space downtown, he said.

"We don't want to undercut the market," he said. "We're sensitive to that."

That's why a report on the building's future that was issued last year by the Development Authority recommended other options, notably government office space, or a home for a Western Washington University program to help local artists develop successful art-based businesses.

The arts business idea never gained traction, so the focus now is on public offices.

While the building encompasses 43,100 square feet of space, only about 54 percent can be used because of its hallways, stairwells and a two-story light court. Despite the limited amount of usable space, and its few tenants, the building still costs the city from $200,000 to $250,000 a year in utility, maintenance and janitorial costs.

"It's fairly expensive just to have it empty," Carlson said.

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com.

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