Not So Fast

Changing costs may save the Lillian.

The argument for demolishing the Lillian apartments began to unravel last week. Vulcan Inc., the building's owner, has been working for months to get the city to give the demolition order for the 33-unit vacant building in the Cascade neighborhood [see "Who's Destroying the Lillian?" June 27] so it can develop the property. But, in a strange twist, Vulcan's own testimony could cause the company's plans to backfire, forcing it to hold onto a building it wants nothing to do with.

Seattle law says that when repairs would cost less than half of the building's replacement value, demolition is not an option; the city can only order that the building be repaired or be sealed and abandoned.

Vulcan assumed that the city would find the Lillian so far gone that it would give a quick demolition order. And at the June 26 hearing on the building's fate, city building inspector Matthew Moeller seemed to hand victory to Vulcan, setting the Lillian's replacement cost at $948,627, with repair costs coming in at $514,063. But these numbers are wildly contradicted by low-income housing activists and by Vulcan itself.

The city's replacement cost for the Lillian "is not credible," says Sharon Lee, executive director for the Low Income Housing Institute, a nonprofit housing developer. Lee says that it usually costs over $100,000 per unit to develop affordable housing, which would put the Lillian's value at over $3 million. Lee wants an independent review of the city's report.

Vulcan's own numbers seem to confirm Lee's criticism. In a spreadsheet offered to the city as part of Vulcan attorney Roger Pearce's testimony, the company estimated the value of the Lillian at $2.3 million, well over twice the city's estimate. If Vulcan's own assessment is even close to accurate, its case for demolition will fail unless the repair costs double.

If anything, says John McLaren, an architect who works on affordable housing, the city's estimated repair costs for the Lillian are already too high. "This building is utterly renovatable," he says. Citing the city's claims that it would cost almost $9,000 to install 10 new kitchen sinks in the building, McLaren called the city's repair estimates "absolutely, totally, and completely off the wall."

Vulcan disagrees, and information Pearce submitted in writing suggested that the building required over $2.2 million in repairs to bring it up to code. Pearce didn't offer the inspection records that formed these estimates, however, and told Seattle Weekly that Vulcan won't make those records public "in the interest of not throwing a huge wad of paper" at the city. He said he would submit "summaries" of Vulcan's assessments in the coming weeks.

But no matter what the city decides in late July about the Lillian's fate, unless Vulcan caves under community pressure and abandons its redevelopment plans for the site, the Lillian's days as affordable housing are probably over. Alan Justad, spokesperson for the city's land-use department, says that "the city can't force a landlord to rent out a building," even if it can prevent a landlord from demolishing one.

Trevor Griffey

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