The curse of the 'Sinking Ship'
John Fujii has heard the advice countless times. Are you crazy, man? Give it up. Just walk away. The more he hears it, the more he digs in.
Seattle Times staff columnist
John Fujii has heard the advice countless times. Are you crazy, man? Give it up. Just walk away.
The more he hears it, the more he digs in.
"It's not about anything rational anymore, not that I can logically explain to you," sighs Fujii, a 75-year-old retired forester who lives in Vancouver, Wash.
"We won't give up. It's our family legacy. Curse or no curse."
Fujii's family owns the "Sinking Ship" parking garage in the heart of Pioneer Square. It's been there 50 years — a triangle-shaped wedge of concrete tilted so improbably against the land's slope that it looks like the bow of a boat that's being sucked beneath a pavement sea.
Now the infamous garage has inspired a book. Which argues that the lot is cursed.
" 'Get the hell away from there.' That's the advice I would give to anyone dealing with this particular parcel," says Sid Andrews, 52, a self-described "recovering real-estate shark" and history buff who wrote the book.
He's only partly joking.
"You could argue the whole of Pioneer Square is cursed," Andrews says. "But seriously, at this one spot, gravity's pull seems just a little stronger."
The book, "Boren's Block One: A Sinking Ship," traces 160 years of the history of the lot — back to when it was carved into its peculiar alignment by Seattle's sometimes drunk and conniving founding fathers.
It's no scholarly work. That said, the record of bamboozlement, bad luck, bigotry and bungling that Andrews retraces to this one half-acre chunk of land is eye-opening.
It's as if a single piece of real estate contains a version of every bad Seattle story ever told.
For starters, the land was more or less stolen from the Indians. So was everything around here. Andrews argues this affront was worse. Based on old maps of when Yesler Street was a tide flat, he theorizes it was the site of the main fishing camp of the Suquamish leader, Chief Seattle.
Later, it was part of a sawmill skid road. Then its two maple trees were used for the town hangings — including, in 1882, a lynching. After which the sheriff, who had owned the property, mysteriously dropped dead.
For a time, Seattle's finest hotel was there, the Occidental. But it was destroyed in a fire, rebuilt and then neglected into foreclosure due to bitter family lawsuits. By the 1940s, it was called the Seattle Hotel — grand architecture but the "mother of all flophouses," Andrews writes.
That's when Japanese immigrant Henry Kubota bought it. A few months before Pearl Harbor.
The family still owns it (John Fujii is Henry Kubota's son-in-law.) But in the nearly 70 years since, the family has been:
• sent away to internment camps;
• conned by developers who promised to build a six-story office tower but, once they got it under lease, built the Sinking Ship instead;
• trapped in a 40-year lease during which almost all the parking money went to California speculators;
• pitted in an eminent-domain battle with, of all things, the Seattle Monorail Project, which tried to condemn the property for a station.
"Our family that owns this land has gotten essentially no benefit from it for at least the last 50 years," Fujii says.
He took his monorail fight all the way to the state Supreme Court. The agency needed a third of the land for the station and greedily wanted the rest for a moneymaking development. Fujii lost. He won the land back only when voters did a monorail mercy killing.
Can real estate be cursed? I've always liked the Sinking Ship — for its kitsch appeal, and its function-first design (the reason the floors are sloped against the grade is so you can access all four parking levels directly from the street — no ramps!)
But Fujii concedes that even his wife — Doris, Henry Kubota's daughter — calls their ship "the ugliest building in all of Seattle."
"People were mad at us," he says. "They would say, 'Why did you tear down a historic hotel and build ... this?' Only it wasn't us. My father-in-law got bamboozled. Still, it has stuck to us all these years."
Not in the book is another disgrace. It was on the garage's roof where police and mayoral brass stood while they watched — and did nothing to stop — the deadly Mardi Gras riot of 2001.
Some good has come from the block, as echoes to the bad. Frommer's travel guide calls the Sinking Ship "the monstrosity that prompted the movement to preserve the rest of this neighborhood."
Likewise, Fujii's legal fight with the monorail — which he estimates cost him $1.5 million — has led to a movement to rein in the government's power to seize private property for its own economic development.
Now it's his dream, or maybe his obsession, to build something there to make Seattle proud.
Someday. Because, sadly, right now Boren's Block One is mired in yet another lawsuit. This one brought by the company that runs the garage.
"I think it may not happen in my lifetime, so it will have to be the next generation, but we will break that curse," Fujii vows.
"I hope I'm not giving Mr. Andrews the material for a sequel."
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to email@example.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
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