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Belltown Messenger #79 - May 2010

CLARK HUMPHREY sees a dream go down
Einsturzende Neu-Belltown

As the cool and/or old among you know, the venerable German noise band Einsturzende Neubauten takes its name from the “collapsing new buildings” built quickly and cheaply in the two postwar Germanys.

Now we’ve got one of our own.

Just nine years in existence, the McGuire Apartments, all 25 stories and 272 residential units and four storefronts, are going down, pending a lawsuit by the building’s main contractor.

The whole structure’s been covered in scaffolding for exactly one year. Finally, its management decided that in the current apartment market, fixing the place would not be worth the cost. The whole project cost $32 million to build. Fixing it would cost $80 million.

And the biggest irony: The whole project was co-developed by the Carpenters Union, on the Second Avenue site of its old union hall.

(That place was a great rental space back in the early punk rock days. Many fine local bands played there. Einsturzende Neubauten didn’t, alas.)

Union crews built the McGuire, which contains a small union office and hiring hall on its ground floor.
It was co-developed with a national union pension fund, under a joint venture entity called Carpenters Tower LLC. That firm’s official statement cites “extensive construction defects, which principally involve corrosion of post-tensioned cables and concrete material and reinforcement placement deficiencies.”

As the Messenger’s Ronald Holden wrote at crosscut.com, “The structural problems stem from cables that are corroding because they were not properly protected with corrosion-preventative paint, the grout used to seal the cable ends and anchors was not the specified non-shrink grout, and it was defectively installed. ... In other words – a nightmare.”

The McGuire’s main contractor, Missouri-based McCarthy Building Co., insists the building is habitable and salvagable. It acknowledges the structure has problems, but McCarthy claims they can be fixed, and could have been fixed more cheaply, had years of litigation not delayed repairs. (Carpenters Tower has sued McCarthy and the building’s designer, Seattle-based Hewitt Architects. McCarthy has also sued Hewitt and several subcontractors.)

This will assuredly end up in court. But before that, the McGuire’s residents will probably all be out. They’re being offered city-mandated settlement fees to get out, plus a little more if they get out by this month.
The ground floor retail tenants aren’t getting offered anything close to the money they spent creating their interior spaces. One of these, Quint Eby Salon, has issued murmurs hinting at its own legal actions.

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 Back in 2002, I wrote about the Belltown building boom for the last piece I ever wrote for the Stranger:
“In 1999, city officials estimated that 150 to 200 recently built condo units had some form of water damage, needing a total of over $100 million in repairs. Some of these buildings will undoubtedly fall into serious disrepair before their occupants have paid off their mortgages.”

As an all-rental property, the McGuire is legally easier to vacate, and hence to raze, than it would have been if its units had been sold as condominiums.

But this WILL happen to a condo building in the region, sometime this decade. And that’ll be
an attorney employment scenario for sure.

Quoting Tim Ellis at real-estate blog SeattleBubble.com, “With this so-called ‘upscale’ apartment being torn down after less than ten years, I can’t help but wonder just how much attention to detail was really given to the latest batch of towers as developers rushed to cash in on the gold rush.”

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Some additional thoughts:
•   Bigas Luna’s 1993 Spanish film Huevos de Oro (literally “Golden Eggs,” but retitled “Golden Balls” for U.S. release) features a similar theme. A hotshot young development titan wannabe builds what would be the tallest tower in his part of the country. But he skimps on diluted concrete and other substandard materials. Local officials order the unfinished building to be imploded. Our macho antihero gets his full comeuppance and then some.

•  How will the McGuire be taken down?
More carefully than it was put up.

It has to. You can’t implode something that tall that’s so close to other things that are equally tall. No matter how well you arrange the explosives, there will be airborne debris, and it will hit other people’s property, and they will sue.

So instead, it will be painstakingly dismantled, wall by wall, floor by floor. The whole job could take more than a year.

•  What will replace it?
I’m sure there will be some big idea for a big replacement building. Perhaps, to speed up zoning approval, it could look a lot like an un-scaffolded McGuire. But it won’t be built for a while.



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