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January 26, 2011 at 2:38 PM

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WSDOT softens its view on demolishing artists' workspace

Posted by Mike Lindblom

Reacting to huge public outcry, the state Department of Transportation said Wednesday that it will look for a "Plan C" that might spare a Pioneer Square artists' colony from being permanently evicted by the Highway 99 tunnel project.

Previously, the DOT said it would cost $30 million to brace and partly rebuild the century-old Western Building to meet modern seismic standards, so razing it was the only option. About 100 artists in the converted warehouse are facing possible eviction by March 2012 -- many have insisted that if they go, governments should help them find a replacement building in the historic district.

Ron Paananen, administrator for the $2 billion tunnel, said Wednesday that the pro-artist reaction "caused us to step back a bit." Also, Seattle City Council members sympathetic to the artists have asked DOT to look again at solutions.

Artist Johnny O'Brady, who sat at a City Council committee briefing Wednesday, called the news positive. "If we're diluted and spread throughout the city, it would be a huge cultural loss," he said.

A "Plan C" would entail strengthening the structure enough to withstand vibrations from the giant machine that will tunnel beneath it in 2013, but not necessarily to full seismic code, Paananen told the Times. He said the state has heard suggestions but doesn't yet have particular strategies in mind, nor does he yet have a view about whether a partial retrofit is legal under building codes.

A partial retrofit would require artists to leave temporarily during building construction work.

Paananen reiterated the building, which is sinking in the middle and has cracks as wide as a fist, cannot simply be left as is. "That's not a risk I'm interested in taking. We do not believe the building can withstand any settlement beyond what's occurred already," he said.

Meanwhile, the National Trust for Historic Preservation issued a letter this week seeking to become involved in talks about the fate of the building, at Western Avenue and Yesler Way. The trust joins a number of other historically-minded agencies and groups that have questioned the idea of removing the building. Artists have created and displayed there for three decades. The trust's involvement helped prompt DOT's shift, said City Councilman Nick Licata.

Jen Vertz, a photographer in the Western Building, said she already has a relocation interview scheduled with DOT on Friday. Previously, she said some artists might be able to pool together a down payment on other space nearby. "If we could get a straight answer, that would probably be nice," she said. "Either way, whatever happens is fine. It's disrupting our business, the way this is going back and forth."

The building is owned by Benjamin and Lois Mayers, of Bellevue, landlords to the artists since they arrived in 1981.

At a City Council meeting Wednesday, Councilman Tom Rasmussen said, "I think it's important to try and achieve the goal of saving the building."

If a short-term retrofit does occur, artists wish to be able to return at a reasonable rent cost, O'Brady said.

History suggests that's unlikely, Licata said, but he added that he believes the building has intrinsic value, even if the artists wind up elsewhere in the Square. "It will cost so much to save it, you'll never get the rental rates you have now," he said. The Western is similar in shape to the adjoining Polson Building, which was updated with X-braces and other improvements.

Politically, the DOT's new flexibility ought to help sustain the 8-1 pro-tunnel majority on the City Council. Councilman Mike O'Brien, who would rather rely on transit upgrades, I-5 and surface streets, said his pro-tunnel colleagues have varying levels of commitment to the deep-bore tunnel. Licata said that in theory, a demolition could sour some members on the tunnel, but he believes DOT is now showing "a great deal of sensitivity."

Said O'Brien: "There is certainly consensus among council members that the artist colony in a historic building is a city asset that needs to be preserved. If the physical building can't be preserved, or if there is a better way to preserve the artists' colony in the neighborhood, council members would explore that."

The deep-bore tunnel would replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and its route goes just below a layer of unstable fill soil beneath the Western Building. At least one anti-tunnel initiative is expected to qualify for a possible public ballot. State lawmakers approved a tunnel option in 2009.

An artists' group is posting information on Facebook.

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