Grey Matters: Built to Spill

Knute Berger is looking for a warm, dry place to celebrate Seattle's can't-do spirit

Built to Spill
Summer thrives as a testament to the can-do spirit of the people of Seattle. For the first time in 90 years (except for an understandable hiatus during World War II), we were about to face a summer without a July 4 public fireworks display. There was no one to pay for it in these tough times. In stepped KIRO talk-radio host Dave Ross and restaurateur Tom Douglas, who began raising money on the air. The funds were quickly generated by individuals and the business community, including $125,000 checks from Starbucks and Microsoft.

Shortly thereafter, it was reported that the annual Seafair hydroplane race was at risk of cancellation because it didn’t have funding either. So, just as people had hustled to ensure a summer with skyrockets, a new hero was needed to save us from the first season in 60 years without thunder boats on Lake Washington. Blessedly, Duke Moscrip, owner of Duke’s Chowder House, came up with the needed $40,000 so the race could go on. It’s nice to know that Wall Street isn’t the only thing that can get a bailout.
Our summer rituals may seem frivolous, but they’re part of who we are and how we celebrate our few dry (well, sometimes) weeks each year. An added benefit is that the carbon footprint of Seafair will ensure even warmer summers ahead, for the whole planet.

Those are examples of Seattle’s can-do spirit. Now here’s the can’t-do part. While Seattle was saving summer fun, the city declared a 25-story building in Belltown, the McGuire Apartments, to be unsafe. So unsafe, in fact, that it is slated to be torn down. The building is only 9 years old. Since when did Seattle high-rises come with the life expectancy of a bottle rocket?

The problem appears to be that steel support cables holding up the building’s floors weren’t properly installed, and a bad job of applying grout exposed them to corrosion. The result is a structure at risk of turning into the worst kind of pancake house. Adding to the embarrassment of this faulty tower: One of its owners is the Carpenters Union.

If union carpenters can’t build a safe building, just where does high-rise Seattle stand, or fall? Mayor Mike McGinn has ordered the city to inspect its own records to see if there are any more collapsible buildings out there.

Doubly humiliating is the fact that water is the cause for concern. In this the McGuire is not alone. How many times have you seen new projects go up with time-lapse quickness, and a little later they’re shrink-wrapped in a condo condom because of leaks, mildew, gooey plaster, bad air or toxic mold?

On the heels of the McGuire debacle came news that Seattle’s brand-new South Shore School was to be closed down for the year because students and staff were suffering itching and nausea. I always felt that way in school but they never closed one for me. But I was allergic to schoolwork, not bad air. The source of the problem was thought to be chemicals produced in part by damp concrete. So not only can’t Seattle decide which schools to close, we can’t open new ones either.

We invaders have lived in the Pacific Northwest for more than 200 years. This is a place rather well known for rain. Yet despite all of our accumulated centuries of wisdom and all of our technology, we can’t, in the 21st century, construct buildings that keep us dry? No wonder they’re talking about putting Chihuly glass in a new building at Seattle Center: They’ll need plenty of bowls to catch the drips.

We’re frequently described as a city that can talk any plan to death, a town that’s hung up in gridlock.  How is it that the mayor has stalled the tunnel replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct? Why haven’t we replaced the 520 bridge, the South Park Bridge, the waterfront seawall?

In light of new developments, I guess we should be glad about these delays. It’s not just a matter of not building things like we used to; perhaps we shouldn’t build anything at all. At least not until we can remember how to do it properly.

Originally published in July 2010