City leaders say the River Park Square parking garage likely will not be re-inspected, despite requests by mall critics.
Former Pend Oreille County Sheriff Tony Bamonte, among others, contends the garage wasn’t inspected when it was redeveloped in a complicated partnership with the city.
City records, however, indicate that building department officials inspected the garage as it was expanded in the late 1990s, and employees who worked at the city when the mall was redeveloped say accusations that the city didn’t do building inspections – or were lax in doing them – are false.
“The record clearly shows there was an extensive amount of inspections conducted,” said Spokane building official Joe Wizner. The city provided a portion of the garage inspection records to The Spokesman-Review this month. Wizner said he still is searching for additional records of “special inspections” that were required by the city and completed by a third party.
River Park Square and the mall’s garage are owned by the Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.
Terry Goebel, of Goebel Construction, the firm that led the project, said he had a large stack of inspection records, but he gave them to federal investigators looking into the death of Jo Ellen Savage, whose car fell from the garage in 2006. He said those records prove the garage was inspected thoroughly.
Spokane resident Ron Wright asked the City Council last month for the garage to be inspected.
“In my opinion, a compelling argument has been made to require the immediate inspection of the RPS parking garage to determine whether these allegations have any merit,” Wright, a retired police detective from Southern California, said in a letter dated last month to the council.
Allegations that the city didn’t inspect the garage have grown since Savage’s death. Witnesses told police that Savage’s car hit a garage wall at a low speed and that the wall gave way.
In the mid-1990s, the city and mall entered into a controversial partnership to redevelop the struggling mall. A few years before, River Park Square hired an engineer to examine the walls after some of them broke when hit by cars. The engineer’s report said that while tests showed they meet code, there likely was “a problem.” He suggested a further study or erecting cables in front of the barriers. Those actions weren’t taken, though mall officials say they took other steps.
Cowles Co.’s insurers agreed in 2006 to pay more than $1 million to Savage’s family as part of a civil case.
Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker has said he will decide before April 8, when the three-year statute of limitations runs out, if manslaughter charges should be filed against Cowles Co. officials related to the 2006 crash.
City Attorney Howard Delaney said his “preliminary opinion” is that the city won’t re-inspect the garage. But he said he will wait to respond to Wright’s request until after Tucker makes a decision.
Bob Eugene, who led the city’s building department in the late 1990s, said he remembers no pressure exerted on inspectors to go lightly on the mall.
“The inspections went on as routine,” said Eugene, who currently works for Underwriters Laboratories in Western Washington. “The public should be satisfied that the proper inspections were done.”
But Dennis Beringer, the city’s former real estate manager, says he remembers a staff meeting where it was announced by former Assistant City Manager Nick Dragisich that the city would not follow protocol for inspecting the garage.
“That’s when we were told that there was not going to be much inspection of the garage. Everybody around that table was pretty much outraged that we were not going to follow a lot of our protocols with that project,” said Beringer, who currently works as an associate commercial real estate broker for Byrd Real Estate Group in Spokane. “Reports were coming in from workers on the project about the lack of inspection.”
However, reached this week, Dragisich, who oversaw the public works and building departments, said normal city protocol was followed. He said Beringer likely is referring to a recommendation Dragisich made to station an inspector on the construction site full-time.
Dragisich, who currently works as a consultant to local governments in Minnesota, said taking that step isn’t required by law. However, he recommended the extra inspection because under the original mall deal, the city eventually would have become the owner of the garage and the action would have protected the city’s investment, he said.
The idea was brought up at a City Council public works committee meeting in December 1998.
Among those who opposed Dragisich’s recommendation for extra inspection, according to meeting minutes, was former Mayor John Talbott – a staunch critic of the mall partnership.
“The consensus of the Public Works Committee was to not do any inspection of this facility,” minutes say.
Dragisich said the line from the minutes refers to his idea to have a construction inspector posted on site.
Beringer, whose statements about the lack of inspections were first reported by online writer Larry Shook, said that then-City Manager Bill Pupo “gave the final order” not to inspect.
But Dragisich said the decision made against extra inspection was made by the City Council committee and that mall officials may not have known he recommended the idea.
“The decision was that we’d have to put (a city employee) on it. Budgets were tight. So there was a cost issue,” Dragisich said. “It was inspected just as any other development. It wasn’t given less attention. It wasn’t given more.”
Public Works Director Dave Mandyke, who was an assistant city manager in the late 1990s, worked as a liaison on the project between mall developers and the city. He said he also knows of no pressure from Cowles Co. officials or anyone else to go easy on inspection.
“We had our differences, as you do with any big project. But, no. Never ever,” Mandyke said when asked if he remembers pressure for lax inspection.
Eugene and Wizner say that although the garage was properly inspected in the late 1990s, the original portions of the garage, which were built in the 1970s, were not subject to a new building inspection during redevelopment. That includes the wall that was hit by Savage’s car.
Mayor Mary Verner, however, noted that all the walls were inspected after the mall installed metal barriers and reinforcing plates on the walls after Savage’s death in 2006.
Bamonte has accused the mall of making “superficial” repairs to the walls.
Verner stressed that plans were reviewed by LSB Consulting Engineers on behalf of the city before they were approved. GeoEngineers inspected the 2006 wall improvements before a building permit was issued.
“I think we’ve conducted our due diligence,” Verner said.
Savage was not the first driver who broke a wall in the garage after making contact.
In a sworn statement from 2006, Rex Franklin, who managed the garage in the early 1990s, said that after a garage wall failed in 1990, the front of a car “rested on its undercarriage on the parking deck as it dangled over the garage’s edge.” He described a similar failure in 1991.
Spokane resident Melinda Travis witnessed a similar occurrence in 1999, according to a sworn statement she made in 2006.
According to the statement, Travis said she was driving south on Post Street when she glanced at the side of the garage and saw a “gaping hole in the side of it,” with a vehicle hanging off the edge.
Reached this week, Travis, who is the chairwoman of the Washington Lottery Commission, confirmed details in the statement, but declined further comment.
River Park Square spokeswoman Jennifer West said garage records show that a wall panel “was heavily impacted by a vehicle and replaced in February 1999.”
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