The Return of the R: Will It Have a Building to Stand On?

Seattle is rejoicing today with the announcement that a giant, red, R would be returning to the Old Rainier Building on Airport Way, restoring a landmark that many bemoaned should have never been lost.

In 2000, the 50-year-old R was taken down from the building just off I-5 and replaced with a green T, an attempt by Tully’s Coffee to stake its ground in the Seattle market (the move was a PR flop and the company eventually filed for bankruptcy.)

But while the neon lettering will be returned to former glory, the brewery building it’ll be bolted to stands on more precarious ground, caught in an environmental limbo that some reports have suggested (erroneously, building owners claim) could force the old landmark to be razed.

The issue is PCBs, a class of chemicals that hit the market in the 1930s that were, among many other things, added to paint to make it more durable. The chemicals were later found to be toxic and probably carcinogenic, and their high presence in the lower Duwamish River played a large role in that waterway being classified a Superfund Site in 2001.

Today, the State Department of Ecology and City of Seattle actively investigate sources of PCBs flowing into the river. In 2005 they discovered that old coats of paint on the now brightly colored Rainier buildings posed a serious source of pollution.

By the time studies and counter-studies were conducted, the Seattle PI in 2010 was ready to declare “landmark building may have to go.”

Is that still the case?

The EPA wouldn’t comment, citing ongoing negotiations, but one of the building owners says talk of the Rainier brewery’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

“It was never considered. It was never even a consideration,” says Shimon Mizrahi.

The building’s owners have always maintained that they would be able to stem the flow of PCBs into city storm drains with less drastic measures. Those measures have been outlined to the EPA, and are awaiting approval.

And since we’re on the topic of historic restoration, the EPA action could bring more good news for those who think the paint job could be dialed back a bit (an opinion that’s been shared liberally this morning as news of the R’s return has spread): That bright paint will be coming off if the building owner’s work plan is accepted by the EPA.

“We’ve submitted to the EPA a work plan that in the future we’ll scrape the paint,” Mizrahi says.

“When you have a skin disease, you don’t kill the patient.”

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