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An iconic Island building begins to slide down a steep slope
When Bill Chunn arrived at his small real estate office at the top of the so-called Ferry Hill on Vashon’s north end two weeks ago, he knew right away something was amiss.
He had to reach up for the doorknob, which for a few decades had been right at his waist.
He looked down and realized the front step to the door had sunk several inches. Now, Chunn, who with his wife Lynne has sold real estate out of that office for 29 years, is moving out.
He’ll continue his real estate practice from his home. But the iconic building — a charming white structure with blue-painted window frames and cherry- red flower boxes — can no longer be inhabited. It has a red “do not enter” notice on its door, placed there by a King County inspector who deemed it unsafe.
“We’re both kind of heartbroken,” Chunn said, referring to himself and his wife.
He knew when he bought the structure perched on a steep slope above Cunliffe Road that one day it would begin to slide.
“I figured it might be 100, 200, 300 years,” he said. “I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime.”
But Chunn said shifting groundwater patterns took an unexpected toll on the structure.
The building is supported by a beam bolted to a bulkhead that is partially submerged in the steep slope; post and pier construction creates its foundation.
Groundwater running underneath the highway has begun putting so much pressure on that bulkhead that it’s begun to pull away from the steep bank, causing the posts and piers to shift as well and creating a deep fissure along the front edge of the structure.
During a recent visit, he pointed to signs of the building’s demise. The parking lot is sinking. A fence railing is no longer level. Cracks have appeared in the bulkhead. And on one corner, the building is noticeably pulling away from the posts.
“It’s a local phenomenon,” he said.
King County officials, however, say the stretch of road in front of Chunn’s property is not at risk. Alan Corwin, a materials engineer with the county roads division, inspected the property recently.
“I don’t see any danger to Vashon Highway,” he said.
The problem is that the structure was built on an old landslide and was not properly “keyed into more stable soils,” Corwin said. As a result, he said. “It’s slowly creeping downhill.”
The small building — with cedar walls and large picture windows looking out over firs and homes to Puget Sound — was built in 1939 and has always been used commercially, Chunn said.
During its first few years, it was owned by a man named Bill Shakespeare who operated it as a tea house. Paul Helsby eventually purchased it, using it as an adjunct office for his in-town real estate business. The Chunns bought the property from Helsby.
Bill Chunn said he’s not sure what he’s going to do with the property. But he said he’s sad to have to leave it. He and his wife have had long and full careers working out of the small office, earning enough money to raise four children, one of whom is still in college.
“The parting,” he said, “has had more of an emotional impact than I expected.”