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It had to be THAT building

Washington State Department of Transportation announced yesterday that they will propose demolishing the Western Building in Pioneer Square due concerns the building is already too structurally weak to withstand any settlement or vibrations from tunnel boring. Out of the 300-some buildings reviewed along the potential tunnel routes, it had to be the one with the last, large artist colony in formerly-artist-rich Pioneer Square? Approximately 100 artists live and work in the building located at Western and Yesler inside the Pioneer Square preservation district boundary. Well, they live and work in the Western until March of 2012 when WSDOT says they’ll have to be out to allow for demolition.

Councilmembers Sally Bagshaw, Nick Licata and I toured the Western with WSDOT staff last Friday afternoon. We wanted to see up close why the building can’t handle the tunnel project and quiz WSDOT about alternatives to bringing the building down and kicking the artists out.

Note the 2.5-inch-wide vertical crack to my right. This is in a hallway in the Western Building. (click to enlarge)

WSDOT explained that the Western, which shares a common wall with the Polson Building to the north, was never upgraded the way Polson was with pilings underneath and steel cross-bracing on each floor. Looking at the south façade of the Western you see a lot of filled in cracks. Frankly, I’m not an engineer and I don’t know if those cracks are so important. I was more impressed, if that’s the right word, with the cracks inside the building. There are major wall cracks running multiple floors. While that may not be so impressive either, a WSDOT person noted that things would be better if we at least saw rebar or other structural steel when peering into the cracks, but you don’t. You just see separating concrete and block.

The Western and Polson Buildings sit at the south end of the tunnel alignment where the tunnel is still relatively shallow. It will be 70 feet to the top of the tunnel. That sounds like a lot to me, but then we talked about the fact that the soil in this area of Downtown is loose fill. The tunnel boring machine will pass under the western half of the Western and settlement due to the digging or to vibrations could cause part of the building to sink an inch or more. That becomes a big deal since the building is already cracked in places and because the Western’s attachment to Polson means the sinking walls and floors would pull on the Polson. That’s not good.

The alternative to demo would be strengthening the building to withstand the tunneling without sinking, but that would require such major work on each floor – WSDOT estimates $30 million – that the artists would be moved out anyway. The building owners are local and have said they’ve enjoyed seeing the artist community develop in the Western, but who knows whether they’d invite the artists back or look for higher return from high-end rents.

I’ll keep pressing WSDOT whether they really have to take the building, but I have started to think about focusing more on how to support the artists. WSDOT has pledged to find as much space as possible in Pioneer Square for relocation and the artists will have their relocation costs covered. Unfortunately, you can’t cover the cost of a lost community of collaborators and friends.

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