Developers' quake

Activists warn that unnecessary demolition threatens Pioneer Square in the wake of the recent earthquake.

THE MORE THAT building experts review the damage to Pioneer Square from the 6.8 Ash Wednesday earthquake, the more they marvel at what didn't fall. "We lost a few bricks and windows, that's it," says architect and onetime city historic preservation officer Art Skolnik, who credits a special quake retrofitting effort called the "Seattle Technique" with protecting acres of the Square's distinctive brick structures. Current city historic preservation chief Karen Gordon seconds that. "The media emphasized what came tumbling down," she says. "For many of us, the real story is what stood up."

But with 15 Pioneer Square buildings still flying inspectors' red violation tags, rendering structures unsafe for occupancy, activists are now worrying about the redevelopment aftershock, the "second quake" as Skolnik calls it: a rush by land owners to level damaged but salvageable historic properties.

"Naturally, people want to get back to business, to get rid of the unsightliness," says Skolnik, who last week asked for an emergency meeting of the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation Board to discuss the threatened razing of several venerable buildings. However, "we may be facing unnecessary demolition done in the guise of public health and safety."

Of immediate concern is the possible destruction of two historic favorites, the OK Hotel and the Cadillac Hotel, both owned by Seattle developer John Goodman. Goodman—whose companies include Pinnacle Realty, Goodman Financial, and Triad Development—recently renovated Pier 70 for Go2.net and bought the Dexter Horton Building from the city for $46 million.

His Pioneer Square turn-of-the-century masonry structures suffered critical damage in the February 28 quake, permanently putting out the lights at several businesses, including two popular live music venues, the OK, beneath the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and the Fenix Underground, in the Cadillac building on Second Avenue South.

The five-story brick OK building is now shored up by a towering steel and concrete bracing system steadying its facade. The three-story Cadillac has been braced inside after parts of its roof and facing toppled, smashing through the first-floor awnings and leaving a mound of bricks along the sidewalk, a dramatic quake symbol frequently shown on local and national TV.

"At the Cadillac, we're attempting to determine if the foundation is still solid," says Cara McDonald, a spokesperson for Goodman. "At the OK, it's much the same deal, shoring up, making sure none of the outside wall is a hazard."

To the frustration of some observers, workers using a crane have now torn away additional bricks from the southeast corner of the damaged Cadillac building, leaving an even more extensive hole on the upper floors and the growing impression that the building may not be repairable.

"A building that has lost its cornices or some facing doesn't have to be torn down," cautions Skolnik. "We shouldn't be overreacting, especially when these buildings are part of our cultural heritage." Adds neighborhood activist Danny Mitchell, owner of the Trattoria Mitchelli on Yesler Way, "Before the city and developers get carried away, we should have independent engineers down here assessing the damage on an impartial basis."

"The repairmen were just removing a few bricks, that's all," spokesperson McDonald says of the Cadillac work. "We're doing everything possible to see that both [hotel] buildings get preserved, but it if turns out they're not [salvageable], we'll decide what to do then. Our structural engineers are working with the city."

THE CITY SAYS Goodman is hoping to tear down the two hotels, however. "Yes, based on our information, that appears to be the case," says preservationist Gordon. Indeed, Goodman was making plans to renovate the OK—once a popular flophouse for longshoremen and Bering Sea fishermen—into a parking garage prior to the quake, says Gordon. Property records show Goodman owns several other nearby business sites, including the Coleman Building; he also plans to build a 13-story office building a few blocks away.

But, Gordon insists, Goodman—like anyone else—will have to jump through a number of long-established city hoops. She promises there'll be no runaway demolition or drastic renovation of damaged buildings, including the 35 yellow-tagged Pioneer Square buildings where the quake damage isn't as severe but access is limited.

"I want to reinforce the fact that a red tag is not a green light for demolition," she says. "We're dealing with each building on a case-by-case basis. City statutes are clear on the procedures that have to be followed. And with any building that is facing demolition, the [preservation] board will look for alternatives."

The city's building department says it, too, is taking a cautionary approach to demolition requests. "For the historic districts and landmark buildings," says spokesman Alan Justad of the department of Design, Construction, and Land Use, "we are requiring a DCLU permit and a Department of Neighborhoods certificate of approval for even emergency repairs and stabilization."

DCLU inspectors have visited more than 1,100 quake-affected sites citywide, he says, and are also collecting data to compare how retrofitted buildings fared versus those not refitted.

Teams of city loan officers began fanning out last week to meet with owners of tagged buildings, offering funding solutions to get structures repaired and reopened in the Square, home to the largest U.S. concentration of what is called Richardsonian Romance architecture. The style is named for 19th-century Chicago architect H.H. Richardson, whose trademark was strong, uncluttered, and rusticated masonry designs.

"The renaissance of Pioneer Square has been going on for 30 years," says Gordon, "and, thankfully, retrofitting has been a requirement."

Skolnik thinks retrofitting was the miracle worker behind the Square's survival on Ash Wednesday.

"Starting in the '60s, we plowed new ground nationally in terms of coming up with techniques to preserve historic structures," he says. "We were told you can never seismically reinforce old buildings to make them safe for humans. But we found a way to do it without upsetting the historic features."

That bracing system includes an interlocking floor and wall reconstruction that allows old buildings to wiggle in a quake while maintaining structural integrity.

"This was its first test," says Skolnik. "And the great news is that it worked. No buildings fell down, no floors fell, there was no loss of life. We have been vindicated."

Danny Mitchell can drink to that. And he has the glasses to do it.

"We have a small crack in the wall" from the quake, says the trattoria owner, whose historic building on Yesler Way has been retrofitted Seattle-style. "And we lost just two champagne glasses. Before anyone begins tearing down buildings here, they ought to know this system really works."

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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