Seattle artists building must vacate before tunnel drilling starts


by OWEN LEI / KING 5 News

Posted on December 23, 2010 at 8:37 PM

SEATTLE -- Chipped paint, an empty storefront and some tarnished windows make the building look, even by Pioneer Square standards, old.

Then again, 619 Western, built in 1910, is old.

It's not until you step into the old-fashioned sliding gate elevator and see bright green and purple paint adorning the cab that you realize something is different about this building.

Once a six-story warehouse, 619 Western is now home to more than a hundred artists and one non-profit group helping Tibetan nuns, a place where hallways look like art galleries and apartments look like photo studios.

"It's one of the biggest artist residences on the West Coast," said Edd Cox, an oil painter who was among the first tenants. "I moved here in 1981. It's probably the most amazing studio any artist could ask for."

But 29 years after he settled here, something settling just outside is changing Edd's life again.

"The tunnel's going right underneath this building," he said. "Basically we have 15 months to make the transition."

Out of 169 buildings along the proposed $1.9 billion Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Replacement Project, the Washington State Department of Transportation said it's concerned about the structural integrity of the artists' conclave.

"We've drilled over 100 [soil testing] holes along the tunnel alignment,"said Ron Paananen, administrator for the project. " We've done very thorough inspections and structural reviews, and we know this is the one building we have a problem with."

He said the building, which already has large cracks running up and down the inside, likely can't handle the shifting soft soil that will occur when deep-bored tunneling begins. 

The problem is compounded because the proposed tunnel begins only four blocks south, meaning it hasn't reached its full depth by the time it runs underneath 619 Western.

"It is the problem child, it's 100 years old, not much has been done with it since the day it was been built," said Ron Paananen, administrator for the tunnel project. "It's gone through three earthquakes and it's in pretty poor condition as it sits."

That leaves only two options: a major retrofit of the building, which includes shoring up the soil underneath the foundation, or demolition.

But both options have one result.

"Regardless of whether we fix the building or demolish it, they would have to vacate in March of 2012," Paananen said.

That means Edd Cox will reluctantly part ways with 619 Western, something he said he's resigned to, but nonetheless dreads.

"Being here so long, having a studio like this, there's really no way to duplicate it," he said.  "I feel incredibly thankful to have this type of building for the length of time that I did. Artists don't get that kind of gift very often."

WSDOT said it is working with the building owner and the Pioneer Square Preservation Board to determine the fate of the 619 Western.  Paananen said they will make a decision by mid- to late- January. 

They did not have estimates for the cost of either option, but did say tenants will be compensated for their move.