It’s easy to understand how a demolition crew on a Pine Street sidewalk, while trying to remove a clock base, wound up puncturing the roof of Westlake Station.
The top of the station begins only 3 feet deep.
Not only that, but the clock’s foundation was integrated into the cut-and-cover station’s own structure, attached by steel rebar, when tunnel builders poured a huge slab of concrete in 1988 forming the lid.
The whimsical “Question Mark Clock,” by artist Bill Whipple, was commissioned then as station art, and roof blueprints by King County Metro depict its “Clock Tower Foundation” above the northbound passenger platform.
Whipple’s clock, unbolted above the sidewalk last year, is to be replaced by a historic 1928 clock owned by Ben Bridge Jewelers, which is remodeling the corner building at 501 Pine St. as a new flagship store.
Private contractors last week broke into the old foundation. They kept going 48 inches down, through a top station layer 33 inches under the street, through the waterproof membrane, and broke off the edge of one structural girder, Kerry Pihlstrom, Sound Transit chief engineer, has discovered.
The mishap is delaying thousands of light-rail passengers, and discouraging others from riding, because Sound Transit resorted to using only the southbound track for trains in both directions, at four downtown stations. Service is cut in half citywide, to 15 to 20 minutes between trains, compared with the usual eight to 10 minutes, and riders must change trains at Pioneer Square Station to move between downtown and Rainier Valley or SeaTac.
Full service should be restored within two weeks, once a Sound Transit-hired team builds scaffolding and temporary protection, Pihlstrom said.
It’s an inopportune time for light-rail havoc, just as the regional agency was improving the tunnel’s escalators, sanitation and security. Meanwhile, an intact 24-mile 1 Line was in position to earn new riders as warm weather returns, Amazon calls its legions to the office three days per week, and the Kraken make a Stanley Cup playoff run. Light rail was back to hauling 80,000 riders on good days, as ridership rebounds from the pandemic.
A question of time
Whipple’s question-mark clock, stamped BEFORE on the east side of the post, and AFTER facing west, was among four suggested in the late 1980s by Jack Mackie, the tunnel project’s public art director. But only two got built; Whipple’s and the leaning “Hickory Dickory Clock” outside University Street Station, which also provides clocks underground.
“Everybody in Metro didn’t want us putting clocks up, because everyone would say the bus came late,” Mackie recalled this week. He championed the clocks as “a forgotten urban jewel” that tell time and are fanciful. Seattle sidewalks were full of them in the early 20th century.
Whipple said his vision was to spoof the question people would ask, as they emerged from underground into daylight: “What time is it?”
An old quote by Whipple in a construction-period Metro newsletter showed durability on his mind: “Can the new clock be easily read? Will the base attract graffiti if it’s more than a thin column or if, in the event of a Mariner’s World Series victory parade (like a 50-year flood), will crazed fans be able to climb the structure?”
But that remark had nothing to do with the foundation, he said Wednesday. “I don’t know who decided to put the foundation all the way into the [station] ceiling.”
The clock was removed about six months ago, according to Whipple. He said the damage surprised him, because he figured the 1928 Ben Bridge clock would be mounted on the same 1988 foundation using original or new bolts.
A seven-page Landmarks Preservation Board approval contains a diagram of how the 1928 Ben Bridge clock would be anchored to a 48-inch-deep footing. A footnote tells builders to avoid damaging public utilities, and the ornamental brick sidewalk, but it doesn’t mention the station roof.
The clock foundation work occurred under a city street-use permit, listed by the Seattle Department of Transportation online. SDOT told The Seattle Times to file a public-records request to obtain further technical documents. Ben Bridge’s project director hasn’t replied to interview requests.
Sound Transit, which recently took ownership of the tunnel from Metro, obtained the late-1980s blueprints, and on April 27, photographed broken rebar and post-tensioning steel in the hole. Pihlstrom said she’s focused on stabilizing the station ceiling, and the agency hasn’t yet investigated what the various parties knew about the station position.
Whipple’s clock is to be relocated to a corner of Fourth Avenue and Pike Street, where the Ben Bridge clock stood for many years.
Tick tock … what’s next?
A 24-by-6-inch piece broke from the flange of one structural girder, Pihlstrom said. But there are dozens of other girders that run perpendicular to the direction of train tracks. There is zero risk of collapse, she said.
The hazard is ceiling debris, including a football-sized concrete chunk, that could fall onto a train, tracks, or passengers, she said. Water is dripping and the trickle would become greater if it rains, she said.
Westlake Station currently serves about 9,000 daily riders and an equal count leaving the trains. It’s the city’s second-busiest stop behind Northgate Station. The downtown tunnel was originally used by wire-powered buses, then hybrid buses. From 2009-19 buses and light rail shared the corridor, which now serves trains only.
Though the ceiling hole and loose pieces are now covered with plywood, Sound Transit didn’t want to reopen that side of the station, then close it again when temporary-repair crews build scaffolds, explained spokesperson John Gallagher. Flip-flopping detours would confuse riders, he said.
The scaffolding team began work inside the station Thursday morning, according to a tweet by transit CEO Julie Timm.
In future months, another disruption may happen during permanent girder and ceiling repairs, Pihlstrom said.
This spring’s travails didn’t surprise Mackie, the former tunnel art director, because in his time there were plenty of crises, such as a ground collapse during Third Avenue tunnel boring. More famously, King County ordered 24,000 square feet of South African granite worth $500,000 during the apartheid era, then returned it after a community backlash. Original rails inside the tunnel were inadequate for Sound Transit trains, and had to be replaced in the 2000s.
“I thought, well of course, the project lives on!” Mackie said. “It comes back to haunt us one more time.”
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