How 619 Western escaped tunnel planners' wrecking ball

The state Department of Transportation was all set to tear down the historic Pioneer Square building to make way for the waterfront tunnel. 

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Lauren Olson, left, and Annie Malarkey in their studio at the 619 Western building.

The state Department of Transportation was all set to tear down the historic Pioneer Square building to make way for the waterfront tunnel. 

As a building, 619 Western does not look like much. Minimally maintained, it is streaked with cracks, its floors are uneven, and there's scarcely a right angle. Its builders probably did not intend for greatness to be a part of its future when they erected the six-story, concrete warehouse 100 years ago.

They surely could not have predicted the current role the building is playing as the shackle to one of the largest transportation projects in state history, the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The deep-earth boring necessary to build the planned tunnel that will replace the viaduct cannot go on until 619 Western, currently home to one of the region’s largest artist colonies, is either demolished or stabilized.

The state agency in charge of building the tunnel recommended and presumed the former option, as demolition is cheaper and easier from an engineer’s standpoint. In recent weeks, however, preservation advocates have rushed to the defense of 619 Western with such passion and in such numbers, the Washington State Department of Transportation has now publicly reversed its plans.

“The direction we were headed in this project drew a lot of attention” said Ron Paananen, the WSDOT’s project administrator.

That attention “caused us to step back and look for a better way to tackle this problem and other ways for the building to survive what we’re doing so we can preserve it,” Paananen said. “It might be engineered differently, it might be staged differently, it might involve a different arrangement between us and the building owner… there are lots of moving parts.”

All options now on the table allow for the building to survive. It has already survived obsolescence, earthquakes and neglect to become part of the Pioneer Square historic district.  As such, it is entitled to protections under federal law, particularly Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which requires federal agencies to take into account the detrimental effects of federal projects to significant historic structures.

Since the law does not spell out exactly what federal agencies must do to reasonably protect a historic site or building, consulting agencies step in or are brought in to guide the process. As recently as last week, the DOT discussed the future of 619 Western as if demolition was the only option.

That got the attention of the cavalry in the form of local and state preservationists, the Seattle City Council (which heard comments yesterday about the building in a committee hearing), and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which on Tuesday requested to become a consulting party to the project.

“I understand the building is in poor shape but it’s not the building’s fault,” said Anthea Hartig, director of the Trust’s western regional office. The DOT’s recommendation to demolish the building seemed hasty, she said, especially when weighed against the historical value of the neighborhood as a whole.

“Pioneer Square is remarkably intact,” said Hartig, based in San Francisco. “It speaks to its time and place. Our early American period, from 1860 to 1906, is not very present. As you know, half of San Francisco was destroyed in a fire. Pioneer Square, in the western context, is very unique. It is one of the oldest existing historic districts in our region.”

Much of the pushback that caused the DOT to rethink its plans gathered energy during a Jan. 13 meeting between the state DOT and various consulting parties (which at the time did not include the National Trust). Eugenia Woo, the Director of Preservation Services for Historic Seattle, was among those at the meeting.

“They were only willing to discuss mitigation of demolition not the decision as to why,” she said. “It seemed to us like they had their minds made up and that took us by surprise.”

 “There were definitely times when there were disagreements. Either we wanted more information, or new things were brought up to us that made us ask more questions. We definitely asked tough questions, and did not always get adequate answers.”

In particular, consulting parties were not given a detailed accounting of how the DOT determined the cost of demolition ($2.5 million) versus the cost of repair ($29-35 million).

“We were told these were internal documents,” Woo said.

Paananen said his agency generally does not release those kinds of calculations because it does not want to “unduly influence the bidding process.” Paananen did say the retrofit estimate was provided in part by the engineering firm of Coughlin Porter Lundeen and was intended to encompass the total cost of the project not just construction costs.

Nonetheless, the DOT’s reluctance to share details of its estimates put many in the consulting parties in a defensive posture.

The DOT planned and then postponed a briefing it was to give last Wednesday (Jan. 19) to the Pioneer Square Preservation Board (a panel of architects, attorneys, developers and local business leaders), which must approve all new development and demolition in Pioneer Square. It was shortly after the postponed briefing that the state’s historic preservation officer, Allyson Brooks, met with high-level DOT officials and dissuaded them from demolishing the building, citing the likely resistance it would face, the delays it might cost the project and the potential legal action that might result.

The DOT plans to bore beneath Pioneer Square in the fall of 2013, giving it less than three years to reconcile the condition of 619 Western. Even if it convinced consulting parties that demolition was the best course of action, Pioneer Square's historic district requirements mean the state would also need to have in place concrete plans to replace the building before it could begin demolition. All signs indicated that repairing the building was the path of least resistance.

“Clearly it (the proposed demolition) was of concern to a lot of different constituencies in the city,” said Karen Gordon, the historic preservation officer for the city of Seattle, whose Department of Planning and Development issues all demolition permits.

An unfounded fear among the artists in 619 Western was that the DOT could have the building condemned as unsafe to inhabit as a way of getting around the protections given to historic buildings. But the city Department of Planning and Development considers 619 to be safe in its current state, said department spokesman Alan Justad. Furthermore, even if the building were condemned, repair would still be an option equal to demolition, Justad said.

The value of 619 Western goes beyond the structure itself. Because the building is located along the original waterfront and built atop landfill, archeologists believe a wealth of historic artifacts are buried beneath the building.

Bob Weaver, an archaeologist who has worked for the state in the past and is familiar with Seattle’s waterfront, said remnants of the fire of 1889 were likely pushed and buried in that area as was anything dumped from the wharves of the day.

“Everything was covered and protected,” Weaver said.

The artifacts might include bottles, ceramics, clothing, boats, or parts of boats. If the state’s work crews disturb the earth the artifacts are embedded in, they are obliged to recover and protect them. Demolition and construction of a new building would almost certainly require substantial excavation to the depths (15 to 20 feet) Weaver believes most of these artifacts would be found. Reinforcing the existing foundation would be less invasive although might require some excavation.

Having nearly 100 artists work there is what sets apart 619 Western from the other buildings in the historic district. That also adds to the building's cultural value, a consensus that was reached this Wednesday (Jan. 26) at City Hall, when the city council’s committee on Housing, Human Services, Health & Culture met with some of the artists as well as Paananen to discuss the future of 619 Western.

Paananen told the committee, made up of Nick Licata, Sally Clark, Tom Rasmussen, and Sally Bagshaw, the DOT is now focusing its efforts on repairing rather than demolishing the building. But one way or the other, the artists will have to vacate the building and will not likely return once repairs are made, because of the length of time the repairs require and the higher rent the building will then likely command.

The city, said Licata who chairs the committee, “will have suffered a cultural and economic impact if this community of artists either dissolves or moves from Pioneer Square. We hope to use that as a tool to receive funding or build a strategy to retain artists in Pioneer Square.”

The committee mentioned other possible, city-owned buildings as alternatives for the displaced artists, including King Street Station, former military buildings in Magnuson Park, and a city light building in South Lake Union. The colony of artists at 619 might not survive the construction of the tunnel, but it appears now the building will.

“We will figure out the next steps over the next few months,” Paananen said. “We knew this is an issue that would get a lot of attention from people interested in historic preservation as well there should be…We heard them loud and clear.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at