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April 13, 2021

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Efforts to save Providence Academy smokestack fall far short of $800,000 target

The Historic Trust secures pledges of just $600

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
Published:
3 Photos
The Historic Trust, owner of the Providence Academy smokestack, raised only $600 in pledged donations to preserve it, even though it needs $800,000. The Trust continues its pursuit to tear it down in fear of collapse during an earthquake.
The Historic Trust, owner of the Providence Academy smokestack, raised only $600 in pledged donations to preserve it, even though it needs $800,000. The Trust continues its pursuit to tear it down in fear of collapse during an earthquake. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Update: The Columbian received a comment from the City of Vancouver Development Review Division Manager Jason Nortz and Sree Thirunagari, who did not reply to this story because the City of Vancouver was closed on Wednesday due to Veteran’s Day.

The demolition of the Providence Academy smokestack is getting closer to reality after the owner of the land, The Historic Trust, managed to secure pledges of only $600 of the $800,000 it would need to preserve it.

The Historic Trust is seeking to remove the approximately 140-year-old unreinforced masonry structure out of concern that it would collapse during an earthquake.

The smokestack’s fate now rests in the hands of Vancouver’s chief building official, Sree Thirunagari, who last month issued a preliminary determination that the structure was unfit and dangerous to public safety. The city’s building and fire code commission concurred.

On Wednesday, Thirunagari received feedback from the Historic Preservation Commission, a group that oversees the Clark County Historic Register and reviews design changes to registered properties. The commission strongly advised the city to consider alternatives to demolishing the smokestack and two nearby laundry and boiler buildings.

“Although comments suggested alternatives to the demolition of the Laundry and Boiler buildings we have already issued an order of demolition on those structures on 9/4/20,” wrote City of Vancouver Development Review Division Manager Jason Nortz. “We have also placed a condition on the release of demo permit that no demo shall occur until SEPA has been completed.”

The commission also wanted the city to defer the demolition of the smokestack until after a state Environmental Protection Act review takes place, which is already required by law. The review will determine how tearing the structures down will impact Vancouver’s cultural heritage.

A group of commenters on Wednesday testified against allowing the Historic Trust to demolish the smokestack. Among the speakers was Sean Denniston, chair of the Historic Preservation Commission, who recused himself from this issue and was speaking to his colleagues as a private citizen.

Denniston said he is worried that the city is allowing the owner and developer of the property to circumvent preservation protections in the code by asking the city to order its demolition. He said a demolition order would violate the purpose of the Unfit Building Code and put the developer’s financial interests ahead of the public interest.

Denniston hopes to appeal the planned demolition of a landmark smokestack but the city said the decision could not be appealed by anyone other than the property’s owner.

Lack of means

David Pearson, president and CEO of the Historic Trust, wrote a letter to Thirunagari in September asking for a declaration of “unfit” status. The Trust was unable to gather the funds to restore the structure and make it safe during an earthquake.

Pearson’s main concern was “due to seismic safety concerns and its deterioration. It is financially infeasible to make it safer, and there are no avenues for reuse,” he wrote. “Though The Historic Trust has considered the possibility of stabilizing the stack, no financially viable means have been discovered.”

Pearson said last week that an effort to raise public donations to save the smokestack has come up short; $600 in pledged funds were raised, but The Historic Trust needed about $800,000.

“We have had conversations with our donors; however, they are focused on saving the Academy building itself,” he wrote in an email to The Columbian.

Thirunagari could give public notice for a nuisance hearing for the smokestack and also the nearby laundry room and boiler room before he orders the buildings unfit or he orders the land owner and developer to repair the structures said, Denniston said, Nortz said that the city of Vancouver is not required to give a public notice for a nuisance hearing.

“We don’t know what he’s going to do,” Denniston said. “He hasn’t given any indication.”

The site north and east of the smokestack is the future home of the Aegis Phase 2 apartment development, owned by Marathon Acquisition & Development.

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