Colourbox owners Steve Johnson and Chris Beno filed charges in Superior Court in 1998 against their landlord, the Samis Foundation, for refusing to fix the raw sewage pipes connected to the club. The plumbing problems resulted in backed-up toilets and ankle-deep feces floating around on the bathroom floors. The sewage also leaked out into the back alley behind the club. The club closed down last week.
"This whole thing has been going on for years," says Johnson. The lawsuit describes a stinky situation in which Samis refused to lift a finger to fix the sewer problems in their building, which eventually contributed to the death of the club. The club's lease expired last week on June 14, and now the Terry-Denny Building, home of the deceased Colourbox, is scheduled for a major revamping into an apartment building. This marks the beginning of a trend in Pioneer Square to transform historic buildings in the neighborhood, such as the Samis-owned Corona Building on Second Avenue, into housing units as part of an attempt to turn Pioneer Square into a "mixed-use" neighborhood.
Johnson and Beno began a business relationship with Samis in 1991, when they leased the club space on the ground level of the Terry-Denny Building on First Avenue. The rent was low, and the location put them among other rowdy bars and nightclubs that drew business into their live rock venue. In 1993, they began experiencing problems with the sewage pipes. The toilets repeatedly backed up and overflowed onto the bathroom floors, stinking up the entire club. As a result, the Colourbox began losing business when customers, horrified at the muck and the odor, jumped to the next club down the street. After notifying Samis of the pipe problems and getting nowhere, Johnson and Beno hired the professional assistance of Rescue Rooter.
Under the lease, Johnson and Beno were responsible for tending to the plumbing problems within the premises, but Rescue Rooter discovered that the back flow of raw sewage was due to poor maintenance within the entire building's side sewer. The side sewer is connected to the Colourbox's pipe, but isn't on the leased premises. "The pipe had a 40-year life expectancy," says Rescue Rooter's Don Armenta in the lawsuit. "It was much older than 40." Not only did Samis refuse to fix the sewage pipes, but the space they had rented to Johnson and Beno turned out to be a health hazard, thanks to its poopy pipes.
In 1996, Johnson and Beno received a notice from the Health Department, informing them that raw sewage was now leaking out into the alley behind the Colourbox. Johnson passed the bad news along to Samis, and the pipes were "quick-fixed," but the problem of back flow "grew worse and repeatedly occurred under normal use conditions during business hours," Johnson says in the lawsuit.
In vain, the Colourbox attempted to stay afloat. "We lost food and beverage sales; the problem made it difficult to book talented bands; our revenues were damaged as the years went by, and nothing got fixed," Johnson says.
The real stinker came when Johnson and Beno read in the Seattle Weekly that Samis planned on renovating the Terry-Denny Building, and that work was scheduled to begin before their lease was up. Samis had made announcements to both the press and the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation Board, but according to the Colourbox, Samis failed to inform them of the plan. "I felt like we were being squished like bugs," says Johnson, on the connection between the plans for future renovation and Samis' refusal to repair the pipes in the building.
Despite the fact that the broken pipes causing the feces backwash were not on the leased premises, Samis director William Justen maintains, "The lease was very clear that it was [Johnson and Beno's] responsibility. That's why the rent was so low." Justen is unfazed by the lawsuit, and says the last he heard, Johnson and Beno "were dropped by their attorney." Johnson and Beno and their attorney, Jose Vera, say that's untrue.
The closing of the Colourbox could mark the beginning of a facelift that Pioneer Square will undergo over the next 15 years. The Terry-Denny Building will be transformed into 48 apartment units, ranging in rent from $700-$1,100 per month. The city's growth management plan calls for 2,000 more housing units to be smashed in among the bars and nightclubs in Pioneer Square, to make a total of 3,000 housing units by the year 2014. "We're scared to death," says Rick Wyatt of the Fenix Underground. "The clubs welcome those who want to move down here and enjoy the scene, but the reality is that the noise ordinance that goes along with residential areas is going to kill the clubs. This will definitely change the face of Pioneer Square."