Seattle Times on the 619, 1/10/11

Pioneer Square artists to be evicted by tunnel work

The state will demolish the century-old Western Building, where about 100 artists work, because it won’t withstand construction of the Highway 99 tunnel.

By Mike Lindblom
Seattle Times transportation reporter


Jen Vertz, a curator and photographer, is one of about 100 artists who will be forced to move out of the Western Building in Pioneer Square. The state doesn’t think the building would survive the Highway 99 tunnel construction.

The state will demolish the century-old Western Building, where about 100 artists work, because it won’t withstand construction of the Highway 99 tunnel.

Project administrator Ron Paananen disclosed Monday in a Seattle City Council hearing that the six-story former warehouse at 619 Western Ave. will be razed instead of retrofitted.

The building has a weak foundation, and it would cost $30 million to reinforce it enough to resist sinking, said KaDeena Yerkan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation. Otherwise, it might sag 2.4 inches on the west side and 1 inch to the east, Paananen said.

Among other problems, Paananen said, it would create pressure against the Polson Building, with which the Western Building shares a concrete wall. The tunnel machine would go 70 feet deep there, but the top 50 feet is weak fill soil, he said.

The Western was identified last May in contract documents as one of five threatened buildings that required special reinforcement plans by the winning tunnel-construction team. Another 34 need targeted grouting to strengthen the soil beneath.

But not until mid-December were artists specifically told by the Department of Transportation (DOT) that a teardown was being considered, said Johnny O’Brady, a painter and tenant there.

Location is crucial because about 600 to 2,000 people visit the building on First Thursday art walks, artists said.

The artists are to move out before March 2012. Excavation of the tunnel’s south entrance could start in late summer 2011, followed by launch of the deep-bored tunnel machine by early 2013.

A group of artists, under the name “Local 619,” insist that DOT not start construction of the $2 billion highway link until a replacement building is found in Pioneer Square.

Jen Vertz, a photographer, said the tenants have never taken subsidies, and have no interest in behaving as “the artists who stopped the tunnel.”

Instead, they want to rent or even buy another Pioneer Square property. “We as a group could come in with a hefty down payment if we went in with the city,” she said.

Built in 1910, the Western stored fishing nets, canned fruits and vegetables, coffee and many other goods. Two large freight elevators are still used today for lifting art supplies — including motorcycles on which Vertz paints.

The building is owned by Benjamin and Lois Mayers, of Bellevue, landlords to the artists since they arrived in 1981. “We were very happy to continue having the building as it is, a unique, affordable artists’ colony. It was fun,” said their son, Ron Mayers.

Owners can expect a DOT payment for an underground easement, with extra dollars to pay for demolition-related losses.

The state has called for a meeting at 6 p.m. next Tuesday with the artists, in Union Station. Several members of the pro-tunnel City Council are offering the artists their help to relocate.

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