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Engineer’s report indicated ‘problem’ with RPS garage walls

More than a decade before a Pullman woman died when her car drove through a barrier on the fifth level of the River Park Square garage, an engineer expressed concern about the sturdiness of the walls.

Although tests showed the barriers met code, “it appears that a problem exists,” said the 1993 report from structural engineer Richard D. Atwood.

“In our opinion, the panels are not resisting the required lateral loading of 6,000 pounds although the engineering analysis indicates that they should,” the study said.

Atwood’s report proposed performing a more extensive test on a barrier to better determine how much the walls could withstand or to “assume that the panel will fail and add steel cable to stop vehicles before they impact the panels.”

Neither action recommended by Atwood was taken by the garage, said Jennifer West, River Park Square spokeswoman.

Instead, West said, the garage performed “a great deal of maintenance, sealing and caulking” and other kinds of tests on the walls that showed barriers were safe. Coincidentally, she said, the exact barrier hit 13 years later by Jo Ellen Savage’s Subaru in the April 8 accident was tested and found to exceed code.

“The garage owners continue to believe that the garage is safe, given that it meets and exceeds the city’s building codes,” West said.

River Park Square is owned by the Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

Atwood’s report and other documents were released Tuesday evening by River Park Square after repeated requests from The Spokesman-Review. The documents were provided the same day that a judge ruled against two requests from former City Councilman Stephen Eugster asking that action be taken to ensure garage safety. The mall turned over the documents to city officials last week, West said.

Other documents released by the mall after Tuesday’s hearing hint that a garage barrier broke when hit by a car in 1990. However, details on that event are scant.

“This is just a skim off the top of things being pulled together,” West said, adding that attorneys are continuing to search for more records to detail the 1990 incident.

Another barrier broke when hit by a car in 1991, according to a Spokesman-Review article at the time.

A 1990 study found that 45 barriers in the garage were cracked, documents say. The garage had 20 new barriers constructed to replace 18 that were beyond repair.

“It’s my understanding they would always have a couple on hand in case they needed them,” West said.

Atwood’s 1993 study was commissioned by the garage after a wall broke when hit by a car, and the study said “several panels cracked in the past” when they were struck.

Reached at home Tuesday evening, Atwood said that sometimes building code isn’t enough.

“I believe we checked it out and found it met code, but we had a failure and if you have a failure and you meet code, you don’t know whether it’s right,” Atwood said.

Atwood, who is now retired, cautioned that he makes no judgment about the April incident.

“You don’t know what the real facts are,” he said. “Numerous things could have happened” since he wrote his report.

He said he made the two recommendations because “I didn’t know what was causing the problem. It didn’t add up.”

West said the garage performed extensive maintenance annually through 1999 when operational control of the garage was taken over by a city agency.

River Park Square regained full control of the garage last year as a result of lawsuits stemming from garage financing. However, even when the city agency was involved, the day-to-day operations were performed under contract by a Cowles Company subsidiary.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Eugster asked Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor to declare the garage a public nuisance and to order the city to take action against River Park Square to make it safe.

O’Connor said Eugster did not have “standing” to make the nuisance claim because state law requires that a person who files one must be more affected by the alleged problem than the average citizen. Eugster testified that he parks in the garage and that his daughter is learning to drive and likely will use the garage.

“If the plaintiff doesn’t have standing, no one has standing,” Eugster said after the hearing.

The judge said she would not order Spokane leaders to intervene because the city needs time to finish an investigation.

“For the court to come in and tell (the city’s building official) how to direct his investigation or to circumvent it and simply pull it in to the court without allowing it to conclude would be inappropriate,” O’Connor said.

Eugster claimed that the city has a conflict of interest in deciding the garage’s fate, since it might have liability because of its involvement in running the garage.

The city held a hearing May 17 about the garage, at which time River Park Square officials presented a preliminary study showing that the garage likely meets code. They also said they would present results of a larger study within two months.

“While preliminary findings conclude that the garage is in compliance with the City’s building code requirements, we have also asked the engineers to recommend voluntary improvements,” said River Park Square CEO Robert Smith in a written statement. “This is our highest priority.”

Tags: RPS crash