River Park Square officials will be forced to testify this month in a city hearing to determine if the mall’s parking structure is safe.
The decision was made Wednesday by Mayor Dennis Hession, who has been under pressure to close the garage in the aftermath of the death of a Pullman woman whose Subaru crashed through a garage wall on April 8 and fell from the fifth level.
“I could close it as an immediate danger to the public, but I don’t have any evidence of that,” Hession said, explaining the need for the hearing.
River Park Square spokeswoman Jennifer West said garage officials will cooperate.
“They are very open to going to this meeting and sharing the information that’s available,” she said.
Jo Ellen Savage, 62, art director of Washington State University’s quarterly alumni magazine, died in the incident.
River Park Square and the garage are owned by the Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.
An attorney representing Savage’s family has written two letters to Hession asking him to at least close portions of the garage until it’s deemed safe.
Wednesday morning, former City Councilman Stephen Eugster filed a complaint in Spokane County Superior Court that alleges the garage is a public nuisance.
Eugster believes the garage spandrels pose a danger.
It was one of the garage’s spandrels – L-shaped barriers attached to the floors of the garage – that broke when the Subaru fell onto a ramp in front of Post Street and Spokane Falls Boulevard.
West said the company hired a Seattle engineering firm this week to examine the garage. She said the structure is safe, and no immediate changes are planned.
The hearing will be open to the public and will start at 1:30 p.m. May 17 on the fifth floor of City Hall. Garage officials will be asked to provide information to confirm that the parking garage meets building code. If they don’t participate, the city could revoke the garage’s certificate of occupancy.
Hession said the city decided to move forward with the hearing because River Park Square officials had not provided the city with information about the garage’s condition.
“We had been talking about this with the owners of the garage really from the day the accident happened,” Hession said.
The mayor said the April 8 fall was not enough proof to force closure of the garage.
“It’s a very serious incident, but it’s one isolated incident,” Hession said. “We have to think about the likelihood that it would ever be repeated.”
The family’s attorney, Robert Rembert, wrote in a letter to Hession this week that a witness named David McLaughlin, who was parked two spaces from Savage, discussed the incident under oath.
McLaughlin’s statements indicate that Savage was traveling slowly when her car entered the parking space and went up over the bottom part of the spandrel attached to the floor. The car then hit the vertical portion of the spandrel, which broke upon contact.
“My thought was that Ms. Savage was going to have minor fender damage when the right side of her Subaru contacted the vertical portion of the retaining wall,” McLaughlin was quoted as saying in Rembert’s letter to Hession. “I did not believe the Subaru had enough speed or momentum to cause significant damage either to the vehicle or the retaining wall.”
Ray Batten, a consulting engineering and client of Eugster’s, said he examined the remaining part of the wall after the incident.
It appeared that the spandrel’s steel structure, which is surrounded by concrete, was built toward the outside of the garage. To be structurally sound, he said, it should be located toward the inside.
Batten’s observation is a key part of Eugster’s complaint.
“The walls are nothing more than decorative walls to keep the weather out,” Batten said in an interview. “From what I could see, that’s what it appears to be.”
West said she could not comment on the specifics alleged in Eugster’s complaint because of an investigation being completed by Safeco Insurance, the company that insures the garage.
“Mr. Eugster’s claim is without merit,” said Bob Smith, general manager of River Park Square, in a written statement provided by West. “An unfortunate accident happened in the garage, and an investigation is under way to determine its cause. The River Park Square parking garage is safe and open.”
Reports written in 2002 and 2003 by Seattle parking consultant Gregory Jacobson said the first seven floors of the garage were in “poor condition” and had “significant reinforcing steel corrosion-related distress” occurring throughout the structure, including the spandrels.
“If left unrepaired, it will eventually fail or get weaker,” Jacobson said regarding the corrosion distress in an interview Wednesday.
Jacobson had been hired by the city to examine the garage during litigation between the city and River Park Square over the financing of the garage.
He cautioned that he hasn’t examined the garage since his report and can’t say for sure what caused the spandrel to collapse.
Jacobson said Wednesday that although he found serious problems, he didn’t find immediate safety concerns.
“I didn’t see any glaring examples of anything that was unsafe at the time,” Jacobson said. However, he added, “My review was not exhaustive.”
Jacobson’s report also expressed concern with the way the spandrels were attached to the building because he found that water could travel under the spandrels and cause deterioration to the bolts that connect them to the parking deck.
“It wasn’t necessarily an immediate concern but a long-term concern,” he said.
After Jacobson’s report was released, the mall hired Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates in Seattle to examine the garage. Its five-page report said that “corrosion-related distress” appeared slight throughout the garage.
“Very little corrosion related distress to the precast spandrel panels was observed,” wrote Richard Dethlefs, for the firm.
Dethlefs also said it appeared sealant had been applied between most spandrels in the first seven stories of the garage to prevent water from deteriorating the bolts connecting the spandrel to the deck.
River Park Square is using the same firm in its current review of the garage.