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May 5, 2014
An old plant that once provided heat and hot water for the Yesler Terrace public housing project in Seattle is now a place where people can take classes and get job training.
Epstein Opportunity Center opens Tuesday, with space for programs that include Head Start, Job Connection and Catholic Community Services-Youth Tutoring, as well as community meetings.
The 1941 industrial building at 120 Eighth Ave. is a city landmark. Making it suitable and safe for occupants while preserving the Modern architecture — and even the 160-foot chimney — took care and ingenuity by the project team, which was led by Miller Hayashi Architects, with Swenson Say Faget as the structural engineer.
In fact, an old hatch on the chimney was a key to the design solution.
Seattle's Landmarks Preservation Board wanted to preserve the chimney but the project team initially thought it would cost too much to keep even part of the structure, which was independent of the main plant, said Tom Eanes, senior development program manager with Seattle Housing Authority, which owns Yesler Terrace.
But a quick Google search of a company name embossed on the chimney's cast-iron hatch revealed that the company designed and built the chimney, and was still in business.
The team got a microfiche copy of the original structural design drawings and hired Case Forensics to examine the chimney.
Swenson Say Faget found the chimney was built according to the plans. After making a computer model of the chimney, Eanes said, the engineers determined that structurally connecting the chimney and the plant would make them both more secure. Two large X braces were also added inside the plant to help bring it up to code.
The work was much less expensive than a full seismic retrofit or demolition of the chimney.
Eanes is an architect himself, and he called the design team's diligence “extraordinary.”
“It never would have occurred to me to Google the name on this hatch,” he said. “It made it a safer building at less cost, and it allowed us to keep the (chimney) at the full height, which is one thing the Landmarks Board wants.”
The renovation cost $5.7 million. About $3 million of that came from a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant, and the rest from Seattle Housing Authority.
The project team also included CE&C, contractor; Hargis Engineers, MEP engineer; Springline Design, civil engineer; Pacific Rim, environmental; and Karen Kiest Landscape Architecture.
Erik Salisbury, an architect with Miller Hayashi, said the team took care not to alter the curved facade. That and the chimney are defining characteristics of the structure, which is on the state's Historic Preservation Registry.
Another challenge, he said, was to create spaces for programs in a building not designed for them, and connect them in a way that is logical and clean.
The plant was decommissioned in 1989. It originally had a boiler hall on one level and administrative offices on a higher level on the site — which terraces up Eighth Avenue — with only a steep stair connecting them. The facade's curve corresponds to a curve in Eighth, Salisbury said. An adjacent building that was a paint shop shares a wall with the plant's lower level.
An application prepared by Bola Architecture + Planning when the plant was being considered for landmark status said the design was different from other power plants in the city, with simple curvilinear massing, a flat roof and architecturally finished concrete.
The Landmarks Board also considered whether all of Yesler Terrace, with 561 apartments built between 1941 and 1943, should be a landmark. But it only assigned landmark status to the plant.
The team that originally designed Yesler Terrace was made up of prominent architects who used a Modern style for the units, with flat roofs, horizontal windows and separate entries with simple porches. According to the nomination application, the architects did not want small chimneys on the apartments blowing smoke onto residents so they figured out a way to design an economical central heating plant.
But the plant was never intended for social services, let alone kids.
As part of the renovation, the floor of the boiler hall was raised nine feet so children in Head Start could see out of the high windows. “We didn't want to put the kids in a hole,” said Eanes.
The building now totals 15,000 square feet. About 4,000 square feet was added with new interior floor levels and a 2,000-square-foot addition was built on the east side of the former plant, Salisbury said.
Collectively that space includes the Head Start classrooms and a mezzanine for staff, along with two lobbies, an elevator, a connecting stair, multipurpose rooms, consultation rooms, and offices and storage for all the programs. There's also a play area on top of what had been the paint shop.
The building is named for Jesse Epstein, a Seattle lawyer who was concerned about homelessness and crowded living conditions during the Depression and proposed a plan in 1937 to use newly available federal funding to build low-income housing. Seattle Housing Authority was created out of this initiative.
Yesler Terrace was SHA's first low-income housing development. With its low-density garden apartments, it was an early model for projects in other U.S. cities.
Construction will begin soon on a pedestrian corridor through Yesler Terrace, connecting Harborview Medical Center with the Little Saigon neighborhood. The corridor also will connect Epstein Opportunity Center to other community buildings and a neighborhood park that will replace a community center that once housed the education and jobs programs. That center will be demolished this year.
This is all part of a planned redevelopment that will turn the nearly 30-acre site into a mixed-income community that could eventually have as many as 5,000 housing units, 900,000 square feet of office space, and 153,000 square feet of retail and community space.
The heating plant renovation is the first part of the redevelopment to be finished, said Eanes.
“This will be the only (original) building that remains when we are done with the redevelopment,” he said. “I think it's very important to keep it and to have named it after Jesse Epstein.”
Lynn Porter can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.