City officials and the building’s property owner say the building is a public-safety hazard and “nearly impossible” to keep secure.
City officials are speeding up plans for demolishing a part of the old Seattle Times building on John Street, citing ongoing safety problems at the vacant structure from squatters who set up home there.
“It’s been nearly impossible to keep the building secured,” said Diane Sugimura, interim director of Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development. “This has been going on since last fall.”
The building’s property owner, Onni Group, based in Vancouver, B.C., is working with city officials on a plan to demolish most of the South Lake Union site at 1120 John St. to make way for two residential towers — a teardown plan hastened due to the site’s safety problems, said Evan Lewis, Onni development manager.
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The old newspaper building, constructed in 1930-31 at Fairview Avenue North and John Street, was deemed a historic landmark in the mid-1990s. The Seattle Times sold the building, located across Boren Avenue from Amazon’s headquarters, to Onni Group in 2013 after the paper moved to a nearby building on Denny Way in 2011.
Emergency responders have fought at least two fires at the building since mid-November, and police have arrested numerous people living inside. In September, police Sgt. Paul Gracy said some people who live and work in the area estimated that 50 to 200 people were living in the vacant building.
Lewis said staff have been working to secure the building for months, though people have continued to find ways to get in. The trespassers have used power saws and crowbars to take down barriers, he said, and installed hidden hinges for easier access.
“There are so many potential points of entry because the building is big with lots of windows,” Sugimura said. “That’s why we want to get the partial demolition completed.”
City officials are mulling a permit that would allow the property owner to demolish most of the building, leaving the historically protected facade on three sides and some supporting structures, Sugimura said. Project managers plan to begin the work in the next 60 to 90 days, Lewis said.
Normally, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board would approve a design plan before city officials grant a demolition permit. But concerns about the site have altered that timetable, and officials are making an exception in this case, Sugimura said.
“It’s a timing issue,” she said. “The historical-preservation part is still extremely important, and we believe the same portions will be preserved as would have been preserved in a regular situation.”
At a meeting last week, the board reviewed options for bracing the facades for construction. Some members voiced frustration over the moves toward demolition without anyone consulting them.
Jennifer Mortensen, preservation-services coordinator for the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, echoed their concerns, saying the board’s expertise is crucial in making sure portions of the building are adequately preserved.
“It seems to us that the owners and developers have not been interested in protecting and closing off these buildings,” she said. “It’s easier for them if it gets torn down; that’s pretty disappointing for us.”
Sugimura said officials are working to ensure all parties agree on a design that balances preservation and development, though plans for demolition are coming first.
“This is not what our practice is intended to be,” she said. “This is unique. This is a big building in the middle of town. This is not something people should anticipate happening again.”