Artists don't often clamor to media events organized by the state Dept. of Transportation.
But on Jan. 6, when Washington State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond signed a $1.35 billion contract with Seattle Tunneling Partners, a conglomerate of construction firms, to build the controversial deep-bore tunnel under downtown, they showed up alongside more typical attendees -- proponents of ballot initiatives 101 and 102, which seek, respectively, to ban the use of city right of way for tunneling and to protect city taxpayers from cost overruns.
The artists had a stake in the proceedings, too. They represented 619 Western, a Pioneer Square warehouse-cum-studio enclave that is home to more than 100 artists and the only structure along the tunnel route WSDOT has deemed at risk for structural damage during the tunnel drilling process. The decision to update or demolish 619 Western was to be included in a final environmental impact statement, which is due in early June.
But on Mon., Jan. 10, WSDOT made a recommendation to the City Council that the building be domolished, which means the artists are being kicked out. They must vacate the building by March 2012.
Now WSDOT must submit an application to the city for demolition. The department will initiate a conversation about the teardown with the Pioneer Square Preservation Board.
Built in 1910 of reinforced concrete, 619 Western (also known as the Western Building) is a six-story warehouse that sits on the corner of Yesler Avenue, shouting distance from the viaduct. It initially served as a storage and light manufacturing facility for local merchants, but when Edd Cox, Barbara McAusland and Jim Reiben rented the south side of the fifth floor in 1981, it was largely empty. Over 30 years, they and hundreds of subsequent artist tenants have established a self-governing artist colony, one of the largest in Seattle, and they open their colony to the public during the first Thursday of every month as part of the Pioneer Square Art Walk (also dating from 1981).
In December 2009, WSDOT completed a survey of soil and buildings along the proposed tunnel route, drilling over 100 holes to depths of 100-300 feet, and in February of last year the department alerted building owners in these neighborhoods that the tunnel could potentially pass beneath their buildings.
In October 2010 WSDOT released a document, the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement and Draft Section 4(f), with the findings of the soil and buildings survey. The report identified a dozen buildings, all either designated historic or eligible for historic designation, likely to be affected by settlement during construction. The report said WSDOT will take measures to prevent permanent damage at the sites (old architecture erected on landfill), either by shoring up the buildings in advance of drilling or making the anticipated minor repairs after the construction is completed. The only hitch is 619 Western, about which the survey found: "Mitigation measures to protect the building may not prevent the need for demolition to avoid the possibility of collapse." The building, which already shows the visual signs of settling -- uneven floors and dramatic roof-to-ground cracks in exterior walls -- is also sitting on 50 feet of fill and rotting timber piles.
The public comment period for the statement ran from October 29 to December 13. Three days later, on Dec. 16, WSDOT had its first formal meeting with the building residents. Although many residents were aware of the state's report -- indeed, some residents have for years anticipated the closing of their beloved, but aging building -- the timing of the meeting precluded the artists' involvement in the public comments period.
"We should have been invited to participate," said Chris Sheridan, a painter, who has rented a space in the building for six years. Realistically, I know the outcome would be the same, but the basis of a community is the ability to participate in these processes. The stripping away of the process is the stripping away of community."
The transcript from the Dec. 16 meeting showed that the department had not ruled out the possibility of retrofitting 619 Western, an effort the state, city, and Pioneer Square historic preservation boards, along with WSDOT and the owner, would have weighed against permanent relocation. If the building had been retrofitted, it would have been turned back over to the building owner, who would have determined its use.
The building is a popular destination during the monthly First Thursday Art Walk, which encompasses about 90 arts, shopping and dining venues in Pioneer Square. Painter Marie Gagnon, who works in the building, said that the city's arts culture will suffer with the building's demise. "It is a loss to many who come to the 619 building on First Thursday because, for some, it is their first contact with art," said Gagnon. "In talking with folks, I've discovered how art can be intimidating to people, and the 619 offers an accessibility not found in galleries."
With event foot traffic totaling 400-800 individuals each month, the building is a hub of Art Walk activity, rivaled only by the draw of the Tashiro-Kaplan Building and the adjacent strip of galleries on Third Avenue. While closing the building would not doom the Art Walk, it would perceptively change its character. The large number of studio spaces and the convivial atmosphere makes the Western Building unique. Its residents attract and reward visitors (lots of them) wary of the white walls and commerce of the galleries above First Avenue.
In the coming months, Western Building residents will be tasked by WSDOT to fill out paperwork to determine their eligibility for relocation assistance. To get the full buffet of subsidies -- complete compensation for expenses associated with moving and limited reimbursement of rental expenses above the Western Building rates -- each artist will need to prove business activities. WSDOT will work with the City's offices of Economic Development and Arts & Cultural Affairs to find relocation opportunities in Pioneer Square.
Above all, the 619 Western artists say they want to stick together and stay in Pioneer Square, where the audience vital to their commercial success is located. WSDOT, although it is not bound by law to do so (and so ultimately may take no action), has responded by pledging to work with the residents and the City of Seattle to identify an alternative location nearby.
Pioneer Square is no longer the center of Seattle's commercial activities. Instead it's home to an unlikely combination of industries: arts and design, tourism, business week lunch venues, and human services. The neighborhood is also home to a lot of empty real estate. The Elliott Bay Book Company's move to Capitol Hill has tangibly reduced foot traffic and vehicular traffic is expected to increase exponentially during and after the tunnel construction. The loss of the 619 Western artists will take a little more shine off an already struggling neighborhood.