Inspectors didn’t see smoke complaint about Seven Gables Theatre until fire weeks later

SEATTLE — After a massive fire destroyed the nearly century-old Seven Gables Theatre on Dec. 24, 2020, KIRO 7 asked the city about its response to an online complaint about smoke coming out of the building from Dec. 9.

The surprising answer: the complaint didn’t get a response before the building went up in flames.

“Unfortunately, by the time that complaint was registered, we were also getting notices from the fire department that the building was on fire,” Michele Hunter, Code Compliance Manager with the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, said.

That means inspectors at SDCI reviewed the complaint more than two weeks after it was filed online.

It was not the first time the theater had received a complaint. In fact, SDCI told KIRO 7 that an inspector drove by “every day,” and that the site was being “actively monitored.”

The city had issued emergency orders in December 2018, August 2020, and November 2020, citing “high hazard conditions” representing “a threat to the safety or health” of any people inside or the public and requiring in each that the building be secured.

SDCI said the owners complied with all the emergency orders, secured the building and were not fined.

But SDCI’s system shows a complaint filed on Dec. 9 that stated, “The abandoned building is covered with graffiti. The fences around the building have been damaged, and there are now squatters in the building constantly. The neighbors have called the police multiple times due to smoke coming out from the building.”

“Why would it take so long for the city to register that complaint?” KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon asked.

“It’s much faster if you call in a complaint to the city,” Hunter said. “Sometimes our technology has flaws. I can’t speak for why an online complaint takes longer to get through on the system, but they do take longer to make it through the system.”

It was a dissatisfying answer for Bryan Shukla, who lives nearby and called 911 that day in late December when he saw the fire starting around the door of the theatre.

“I can understand three to four days,” he said. “But two weeks-- that’s ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous.”

To be clear, SDCI’S website states, “Life-threatening emergencies... should be reported to 911,” which the complaint says happened. Seattle Police said they got a call about a trespasser in mid-November but couldn’t get inside and did not find any calls about smoke.

But what about follow-up on the online complaint?

SDCI said the early statewide lockdown in the pandemic caused a backlog of work. However, in its own process provided upon request to KIRO 7, step two is prioritizing a complaint.

SDCI spokesperson Bryan Stevens stated in part in an email, “Right now, inspections can take 2-3 weeks from the time we receive the complaint unless it’s related to unsafe housing conditions for a resident (those are given first priority).”

“Is there a way to escalate a complaint?” KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon asked Hunter.

“There is—calling us,” Hunter said. “Calling us at 206-615-0808 is a way to get us immediately to be able to respond.”

Still, Shukla can’t understand how that Dec. 9 complaint never saw a review from inspectors until the day of the fire.

He sees the empty lot every day and wonders what will replace it.

“A city treasure is now gone,” he said.

KIRO 7 asked Seattle City Councilmember Alex Pedersen for an interview to talk about the complaint system. The Seven Gables site is in his district.

He declined.

So did Councilmember Dan Strauss, who chairs the committee that oversees SDCI.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold released a statement that said in part, “Please call 911 if you see smoke or evidence of fire so SFD is immediately notified…

I have asked SDCI whether they had been inspecting this building each month to ensure that it was consistently boarded up and maintained in accordance with the Vacant Building Monitoring Program.”