Last month, a fire in an apartment building in New York’s Chinatown made national headlines. Two people were killed, dozens injured, and some 200 left homeless by the blaze, which also left a trail of accusations of hazardous conditions, building code violations, and neglect. Catastrophes like this grab our attention and beg the question: could it happen here?

The famous Seattle fire of 1889 razed the city’s downtown and determined the architecture of today’s Chinatown International District, as civic leaders rebuilt in brick. Buildings from that period are now a century old. Another historic fire, at the Ozark Hotel on Westlake Avenue in 1970 killed ten people and led to an immediate tightening of building codes. The Ozark Ordinance cost the ID half of its housing, as building owners unwilling or unable to afford sprinkler systems, fire doors and alarms, closed the residential floors of their buildings. A year later, plans to build the Kingdome stadium on the edge of the ID catalyzed the movement to preserve this historic neighborhood. Organizations such as InterIm and the Seattle Chinatown International District Public Development Authority (SCIDPDA) were founded in the 1970’s to redevelop neglected buildings and restore the lost housing stock. A 2008 housing survey by the city of Seattle counted nearly 2,400 residential units in the ID, 75 percent built or renovated since the 1970’s.

“People are living safer now than thirty years ago,” says Donnie Chin, Director of the ID Emergency Center. “People who are building now automatically put in things like self-closing fire doors and smoke alarms.” As the first responder to many alarms, Chin observes that apartment fires occurring since the adoption of the Ozark Ordinance have been less serious. Fire doors and enclosed stairwells slow the spread of fire, while smoke detectors and alarms alert residents and the Fire Department. However Chin cautions that building codes represent only minimum safety standards; a building that meets code can still harbor hazards. The Seattle Fire Department inspects multi-unit residential buildings annually, but between inspections, accumulations of trash or damage to floors or doors can be life-threatening in a fire. Tenants who overload electrical outlets or are careless with space heaters and cooking appliances endanger themselves and their neighbors. The greatest fire hazard, warns Donnie Chin, is human error.

The decision to renovate, maintain, or close a building is complicated by financial and cultural considerations. Many of the District’s historic structures were built by family associations or corporations whose shares are handed down through families. After several generations, a single building may have dozens of shareholders. Decision-making can become mired in intergenerational differences and personal grudges. Keeping rents low helps retain elderly and immigrant tenants, but limits cash flow for building maintenance. Older, more conservative owners may be reluctant to invest savings or take out loans to pay for improvements. Some owners redevelop their buildings as low-income housing, using grants and government subsidies to fill the gap between rents and renovation costs. Others are unwilling to open their buildings and finances to outsiders.

The West Kong Yick Building at 7th Avenue South and South King Street is 100 years-old. It is still in the hands of its first owner, the Kong Yick Investment Company, now controlled by third and fourth generation descendants of the original investors. Built as a single-room occupancy hotel for Chinese workers, it was converted to apartments in the 1960’s. One of a handful of buildings that remained open after the passage of the Ozark Ordinance, today it houses about thirty residents in twenty apartments. Simply maintaining a building of this age is expensive. In 2008, structural repairs to the cornices and brick reportedly cost around $300,000. This year, a change in the building code required inspections and upgrades costing $10,000 for each fire escape.

Renovating a century-old building is an even bigger undertaking. For the past two years, Chris Koh has been managing the renovation of the Milwaukee Hotel on South King Street for his family’s Coho Real Estate Group. The project will restore 117 apartments on the building’s upper four floors. New construction must meet current building codes: seismic (earthquake) and access for the disabled, as well as fire safety. In addition to fire doors, sprinklers, smoke detectors and alarms that automatically notify the Fire Department, internal stairs will replace outside fire escapes (which will be kept to maintain the building’s historic appearance). Hallways and doors will be made wider for wheelchairs. Roof parapets will be braced and brick walls tied to the floor framing for stability in an earthquake. Koh declined to disclose costs, but building permit records estimate the value of basic construction, excluding elevators, mechanical systems and commercial space, at $3.5 million.

So the question is not whether you can put a price on safety, but how much is it, and who is willing to pay?

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