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In heart of Seattle, historic landmark is a ‘blight’ on the city

Built in 1904 by developer Fred Eitel, the Eitel Building at Second Avenue and Pike Street has fallen into disrepair and frustration over its condition is growing. Not only is the dilapidated building a magnate for crime, but some believe the historic landmark is on the verge of crumbling. (Photo: KIRO Radio/Brandi Kruse)
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“Are you interested in buying the building?” a man shouted at me.

I was standing near Second Avenue and Pike Street, staring at a for sale sign on Seattle’s historic Eitel Building.

“No, not me,” I responded.

“Too bad,” he said. “I wish someone would buy the place and fix it up.”

He’s not alone in his sentiment.

Built in 1904 by developer Fred Eitel, the Eitel Building has fallen into disrepair and frustration over its condition is growing. Located just steps from Seattle’s Pike Place Market – which gets an estimated 12 to 15 million visitors every year – it stands out for all the wrong reasons.

“(It’s) terrifying,” said 22-year-old John Doty, of Seattle, who was walking down to the market with his sister for lunch.

When I told him that the building was on the city’s list of historic landmarks, Doty was shocked.

“It’s rundown,” he said.

The top five floors of the brick building have been left vacant for more than two decades. Many of the windows, accented by terracotta ornamentation, are now boarded up. Its street level is occupied by a wig store, a smoke shop, and a rundown teriyaki restaurant – known affectionately as “Scary Teriyaki” by nearby business owners and some beat officers.

Its rough exterior has become a magnet for crime in a neighborhood already plagued by aggressive panhandlers and open-air drug markets. I saw a man smoking crack in broad daylight in the building’s alcove while there doing an interview for this story.

“We certainly can connect some of the activity we see down there with the buildings and the environment,” said Capt. Chris Fowler, head of the Seattle Police Department’s West Precinct. “If it gets rundown, it can get worse.”

But concerns with the building go well beyond its sketchy appearance.

“I’m worried the whole thing is going to collapse,” said Greg Smith, a Seattle real estate developer who owns several properties in the area, including the building next door that houses the Hard Rock Café.

He pointed to steel cables holding the west façade of the building in place as evidence that it’s on the verge of falling apart.

“I think that it’s unsafe for the people that are in the building and for the tourists that are walking to the Pike Place Market,” he said. “Knowing the condition that it’s in, that’s why I’ve put the city on notice saying, ‘something should be done about this.'”

Smith, the founder and CEO of Urban Visions, is among several people who have tried – and failed – to buy the building in recent years. Smith said the current owner, Richard Nimmer, is asking for too much money. At the current listing price, $4.85 million, Smith said the project isn’t financially feasible.

Under Nimmer’s ownership, Smith said the historic building has become a “blight.”

“It’s a shame,” said Smith, who hoped to rehab the building into office space or housing and add a rooftop bar. “It should be restored to its grandeur and its beauty.”

Non-profit Historic Seattle nominated the building for landmark status in 2006, right around the time that Nimmer planned to replace it with a high rise. The historic designation prevented that project from moving forward, and Nimmer has since refused to cooperate with the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board, which is part of the Department of Neighborhoods.

“It’s very sad. It’s very frustrating,” said Karen Gorden, the city’s historic preservation officer. “What we do all day, every day, is work with people who are renovating their properties and doing the right thing. It’s very frustrating that one person won’t.”

Of the city’s roughly 450 historic landmarks (350 of which are buildings), Gordon said the Eitel Building is the “exception, not the rule,” and most of those landmarks are being cared for.

She said there is nothing the city can do right now to force Mr. Nimmer to improve the building’s exterior, even if it becomes so dilapidated that its historical features are in jeopardy.

“If it gets to that point, then it really becomes a policy issue,” she said. “There are communities that have minimum maintenance requirements. Seattle does not.”

The Seattle Department of Planning and Development denied accusations that the building is unsafe. Spokesperson Bryan Stevens said the department has received several complaints about the building, but the owner has made necessary repairs, including adding steel cables to help shore up the building’s west façade after damage from the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.

“It’s not pretty, but structurally it’s intact,” he said. “We’d all like to see some activity in that building, to see somebody utilizing it to its full potential, but we have to wait for the owner to act at this point.”

Nimmer did not return calls for comment and his real estate broker declined to answer questions. Rumors are circulating within the downtown business community that Nimmer may have another interested buyer, although no official offers have been announced.

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