Tacoma Rescue Mission’s lighthouse goes dark

Friday, August 25, 2015
By: Brynn Grimley / thenewstribune.com

Watching the lighthouse being lifted from atop Tacoma’s Rescue Mission along South Tacoma Way, Mike Johnson bent over in disbelief Tuesday.

“It’s like a body without a head,” said Johnson, the mission’s CEO, as the 6,000-pound structure hovered in midair.

As a crane slowly lowered the lighthouse to a flatbed trailer, sun filtered through a gaping hole in the mission’s empty dinning room.

Television crews, structural engineers, mission employees and board members — even a drone — were there to see the removal.

“The light’s getting snuffed out in our community,” said Deputy County Executive Kevin Phelps, chairman of the mission’s board of directors.

Was it overdramatic to compare the loss of the lighthouse to a potential loss of services to the area’s homeless? Maybe. But mission officials worry that this could be a sign of future problems.

For one thing, the 15-year-old building is sinking. One side of the dining room is five inches higher than the other. Cracks have appeared in drywall throughout the building.

An inspection discovered that the earthquake straps holding the lighthouse were maxed out. If a quake hit, the straps wouldn’t do their job, Johnson said.

The rest of the building is safe, for now.

Who is to blame for the sinking, and who should pay to fix it, is the subject of litigation between Sound Transit and the mission.

Mission officials say the building experienced normal settling for its first 10 years. But things changed when Sound Transit laid rail for its commuter trains a stone’s throw from the mission.

The landmark building showed dramatic settling shortly after excavation began in 2011, Johnson said.

Sound Transit argues that its project didn’t cause the settling.

“Our investigation to date indicates that the Rescue Mission did not construct its building in accordance with its own designer’s recommendations,” Sound Transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said.

Mission officials disagree.

“Is it any coincidence that this building waited 10 years to settle?” Phelps said, also noting that the sinking didn’t happen until after Sound Transit started work.

“While the Rescue Mission situation is unfortunate, Sound Transit is not allowed by law to use taxpayer dollars to pay for damages it did not cause,” Reason said.

After two years of back and forth between lawyers, mission officials are skeptical that resolution will come soon. They worry about being able to continue to help the homeless if the building becomes unsafe.

“Our hope is the Sound Transit board will pay more attention to this situation and the potential impact to this community we serve if we can no longer occupy this space,” Johnson said.

Insurance covered the $60,000 expense to remove the lighthouse, so no mission services, including providing shelter, free meals and a connection to housing and support services, were affected.

The mission will keep the lighthouse on its property while it waits for a resolution over who will pay to fix the building.

Despite losing its visual symbol, Johnson said the mission will remain a light to those in need in the community.

“The Rescue Mission is going to continue to stand as a beacon of hope even if the lighthouse can’t stand,” he said.