Whatever you do, don't call it a "skybridge. " The new, 70-foot-long, six-story building attached to Harborview Medical Center, suspended...

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Whatever you do, don’t call it a “skybridge.” The new, 70-foot-long, six-story building attached to Harborview Medical Center, suspended from a giant metal truss over Seattle’s Ninth Avenue, is better described as a “building hung between two buildings,” say the construction managers.

Whatever it’s ultimately called, the bridge building is part of a $257 million expansion and seismic-upgrade project for the King County-owned public hospital that began with voter-approved bond funding of $193 million in 2000 and is now nearing completion.

On June 17, official opening ceremonies are planned for the bridge building and the Maleng Building on its eastern end, a hospital-expansion edifice named for former King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, a longtime hospital advocate before his death last year.

The date will mark a silk-purse-out-of-sow’s-ear conversion for a project that was in deep water two years ago with higher-than-expected construction bids.

The opening also will mark a new step in Harborview’s competition for “elective” and short-stay surgeries and procedures that have been identified as lucrative income-generators at other hospitals.

For many years, said Elise Chayet, Harborview’s planning director, specialty areas such as neurosurgery and orthopedics have been “centers of excellence” at the hospital, which is governed by a board of trustees and managed under contract by the University of Washington.

But up to now, there hasn’t been capacity to expand, and elective surgeries were often bumped for emergency cases, she said. The hospital typically runs at 98 percent of bed capacity, said spokeswoman Susan Gregg-Hanson.

The Maleng Building’s eight additional operating rooms and spiffy new spaces will make scheduling elective and short-stay procedures easier and more attractive for patients.

And capitalizing on the skills gleaned as the region’s top trauma hospital makes sense, Chayet says. “It’s building on our expertise.”

With 50 more beds, the expansion will bring Harborview up to its licensed limit of 413 beds, Chayet said.

The project also includes a remodel and expansion of the emergency department, as well as seismic improvements to the North Wing Trauma Center Tower — the pitch that likely sold the bond funding.

Serving many needs

From the beginning, the Harborview expansion project faced tough questions about its size and scope, and was scrutinized by Metropolitan King County Council members.

Everyone recalled the aftermath of another Harborview bond issue in 1987, when work on the hospital’s West Clinic and West Hospital spaces was delayed several years by design changes, job turnover and a lawsuit.

But hospital officials maintained the seismic retrofit was necessary and urgent, along with the need for increased space. Voters narrowly approved the bond issue and plans to upgrade seismic stability of the hospital’s North Tower, construct two buildings and tear down two others deemed unsafe.

As directed by its board, Harborview gives priority to patients who are vulnerable or poor, or who need trauma, burn or specialized emergency care.

In 2006, it provided more than $112 million in charity care; as the only top-level trauma and burn center serving a four-state region, each year it admits more than 6,000 patients from other hospitals who need specialized or critical care.

By the end of 2005, the expansion project, which was relying on interest earnings and contributions from Harborview reserves for an estimated budget of $263 million, faced a “major budget problem,” according to county facilities-management director Kathy Brown.

Bids upped the price tag by $30 million, but all parties agreed that going back to voters was not an option.

Ironically, Brown told the County Council recently, the solution involved making the project bigger, not smaller.

By enlarging the size of the Ninth & Jefferson Building — the second new building envisioned in the project’s original scope — it could be built using a private partner, Wright Runstad & Company, a real-estate development company.

The arrangement, called a 63-20, refers to the IRS Code and allows a public-private partnership using tax-exempt bond financing with ultimate public ownership of the building after approximately 26 years when the bond debt is paid off.

The state’s rules for 63-20 arrangements spell out a complex range of potential rewards and risks for the private partner.

Originally targeted for completion in March of this year, the Ninth & Jefferson medical-office building is now expected to open in January.

Expanded from about 150,000 square feet on five floors to nearly 450,00 square feet on 14 floors, it will house a number of Harborview departments, the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, the Neuroscience Institute, the UW’s Department of Global Health and additional county agencies.

The Maleng Building, in addition to the new operating rooms, will house an intensive-care unit, specialty-care clinics, a rehabilitation clinic, space for hospital and public-health disaster-command centers, ambulatory-procedures space, an elective-surgery patient-admitting area and a floor for psychiatric patients.

Tunnels will connect it to the Ninth & Jefferson Building parking area and to the hospital’s existing North Wing.

The seismic upgrade of the existing North Wing, prominent in the campaign for bond approval, has been accomplished with the help of a “fiber wrap,” stuff described as “structural wallpaper” by Chuck Kolb, project manager for architecture firm NBBJ. The wrap provides more earthquake resistance than steel would have, Kolb said.

The final piece of the Harborview seismic upgrade: the bridge, which is attached to the building with shock absorbers to dampen movement.

The “bridge”

On top of the state-of-the-art bridge building, giant aluminum-clad structural steel trusses weighing more than 116,000 pounds hold up six floors that were built on the ground and jacked into place.

“I’ve never done an upside-down building before,” said Craig Holt, project executive for Turner Construction, the builder.

At the Harborview building, the bridge is anchored with movable pistons that will provide some shock absorption in the event of an earthquake.

The bridge will have corridors connecting Harborview and the Maleng Building, family-waiting rooms, conference rooms and staff lounges and sleeping rooms.

Etched glass will shield patients from onlookers as they’re wheeled back and forth in a separate patient corridor.

By day, the waiting rooms in the light-filled structure will have a view of Mount Rainier; by night, the whole bridge will glow from a wash of blue lights, perhaps providing calm and comfort to the thousands of patients and their families who seek care every year at Harborview.

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or costrom@seattletimes.com