Delays at the former Red Lion hotel, including the clean-up of methamphetamine contamination, kept the county-owned property from being ready in time for last December’s cold snap.
That meth contamination was cleaned over late 2021 and early 2022 and “has been remediated,” King County spokesperson Chase Gallagher said in an email, and King County still expects to open up the 84-unit emergency homelessness shelter at 1688 S. 348th St. — now named the Federal Way Inn & Suites.
But the situation caused a flare-up over communications about the former Red Lion project. Although the county bought the hotel property in fall 2021, it’s still unknown when the hotel will be ready to open.
The situation came to a head over the last month following the publicizing of the meth contamination and the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s plans to use the Stevenson Motel on Pacific Highway as a stopgap shelter while the former Red Lion hotel is developed — as first reported by the Discovery Institute’s Jonathan Choe and KVI radio host Ari Hoffman.
Following that report, The Mirror reached out to the city and the county for clarity: What was communicated when? How extensive was the meth contamination at the hotel? And when will Federal Way Inn & Suites be open for business?
Federal Way city officials say they feel they haven’t been given clarity or updates on the project, let alone any idea of when the hotel will open. King County officials said they explained the situation with the city and other involved parties.
Regardless of who knew what when, contamination by meth and other drugs is an issue bigger than the former Red Lion.
David Harrison, executive director of the housing nonprofit FUSION, dealt with it when his agency purchased and began converting the former Econo Lodge Hotel into an emergency family shelter in Federal Way.
“I can tell you, we didn’t even think about that when we purchased the building,” Harrison said. “In working with the mediation company … they shared with us that it’s rampant. He said it’s everywhere.”
HOW WE GOT HERE
King County bought the Red Lion in September 2021 and is in the process of renovating it to serve as emergency shelter. Because that project is delayed, the KC Regional Homelessness Authority (which is a separate government agency from King County) wants to use the Stevenson Motel on Pacific Highway as a temporary stopgap to house people.
The city of Federal Way isn’t a party to either the Red Lion Hotel or the Stevenson Motel projects, Mayor Jim Ferrell said, but because both are in city limits, the city and local residents have an obvious stake in their success or failure.
“It’s a very odd situation because this is not our project,” Ferrell said. “(For) the Red Lion … our only interest in this is timing, and getting a facility able to house our unsheltered when it’s dangerously cold. We have been asking, over and over, repeatedly over the last year, ‘What’s the status on the Red Lion?’”
Ferrell had hoped to have the Red Lion shelter online by last year, but as of this week, the city still didn’t know the extent of the meth contamination problem, Ferrell said, nor any timeline of when the Red Lion might open.
The county paid Abatement and Decontamination Specialists LLC $664,688 to remediate the meth, Gallagher said. The drug had necessitated a thorough cleaning of the hotel’s HVAC systems, he said.
The actual amount of methamphetamine in question is still unclear. Gallagher described it as a “small amount of contamination.” In a Nov. 2021 email to the South King Fire Department, originally posted by Hoffman and independently obtained by The Mirror, King County called it “a high level of methamphetamine trace in the rooms.”
The Mirror asked for a specific amount in grams, which Gallagher said he would try to provide, and also asked for clarification about the current hold-up on the project.
The delays are also due to repairs for a broken pipe last year, Gallagher said, and he said the damage stemming from the burst pipes has not yet been resolved. While there is “pending litigation” connected to the remediation contract, which Gallagher said the county can’t comment on, he said that “the issue is not impacting the project timeline.”
As of Feb. 8, the opening “does not have a set date,” he said.
In the long term, there’s another concern: The alignment of the future Sound Transit light rail Tacoma Dome link extension. A map of that project shows the preferred route travels perilously close, if not entirely through the existing hotel building. An alternative proposed route instead hugs I-5 more closely and would appear to avoid the building.
The county “has met with Sound Transit to discuss the proposed alignment and potential refinements to avoid having to acquire or demolish the property,” Gallagher said.
CITY AND COUNTY COMMUNICATIONS
In an interview on Feb. 7, Ferrell said he doesn’t want to paint the situation as a dispute between the city and county and said both parties want the shelter to be safe and successful.
Nonetheless, the communication — or lack thereof — has been a point of frustration for the city.
“For reasons that I’m not going to speculate on, they just didn’t tell us about the meth,” Ferrell said. “It’s been opaque, in regard to what exactly is going on with the Red Lion. … What we just want to know is, ‘Is it going to open or not? And what are you going to do with it?’”
An initial search of the city’s correspondence with the county didn’t turn up any written notice of the meth situation, Ferrell said, but a broader search this week for emails from 2021 to 2023 containing the word “meth” turned up one email chain from Jan. 2022, in which city and county staff summarized details from a phone call discussion that included the meth contamination.
“The testing of the site happened well before ‘anyone’ knew we’d be using Federal funds,” a county employee wrote in that email. “The meth found during the testing made it an emergency situation to move folks out. KC [King County] provided a bus to move folks to the new site and will do the same when it’s time for them to go back.”
Gallagher said the county identified the contamination in 2021 and shared it with city staff and the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KC RHA) around that time. In addition to the Jan. 2022 email, the city, RHA, county and Catholic Community Services had been involved in several emails about options for shelter following the contamination, according to Gallagher.
But Federal Way staff only ever received the one January email specifically in regards to the meth, which “is far from an official notice,” city spokesperson Steve McNey said. Ferrell maintains that he wasn’t briefed on the meth situation.
“It is important to note that the Mayor doesn’t believe anyone is lying,” McNey said. “He believes this is simply a case of each party telling the truth as they know it to be.”
DRUG CONTAMINATION A RELENTLESS ISSUE
Washington state in 1990 passed legislation that allowed the Department of Health to set a maximum concentration for occupancy hazards like meth or lead. For meth, the number is 0.1 micrograms per 100 square centimeters. (One microgram is a millionth of a gram.)
Contamination inspections are one of the requirements for using state funds to purchase hotels like the Red Lion, Gallagher said, and the State Department of Commerce gave King County $8.9 million to work on the hotel.
Drug contamination was an unwanted surprise for FUSION’S Pete Anderson Family Center project, FUSION CEO David Harrison said in an interview, and proved a learning moment for the organization.
“It was one of those, ‘You don’t know what you don’t know’ kind of things,” Harrison said. “Our project ended up costing three times as much, and took three times longer (than expected.)”
It was already an old hotel, with fire alarm and stability issues, dry rot in the roof and a lack of ADA accessibility.
And then there’s the meth.
FUSION ultimately spent $100,000 and a month dealing with methamphetamine contamination, pressuring washing the interior, ripping up the carpets, tossing out soft materials like couches and mattresses, using an oil shellac to handle any remaining residual meth in the drywall and painting and finishing everything afterward.
They put in tile flooring too: “We got little kids, and little kids like to play on the carpet,” Harrison pointed out.
The silver lining, he said, was that it prompted them to get all-new mattresses and bedding for the residents.
“It’s an extensive process to get it down to the levels that meet there requirement for testing,” Harrison said. “… We’ve purchased several properties since then, and the first thing I do is go get the meth test.”
One problem, Harrison said, is the dust-like nature of meth that makes it easy to spread from room-to-room when, for example, a housecleaner unknowingly vacuums or mops it up.
“One person smoking meth, at one time, in a room, will most likely not put you over the limit,” Harrison said. “But continuous use in the room, and also within the building (that) keeps getting spread … is when the issue comes.”
Even with the meth contamination apparently handled at the Red Lion, the possibility remains that new drug use could re-contaminate any property after it opens.
The solution for FUSION, Harrison said, was zero tolerance: “No alcohol, no drugs, no weapons” on the property. They monitor hallways, perform weekly room inspections, search the belongings of new residents and aren’t afraid to kick people out if they’re breaking the rules, he said.
King County has said previously that the project at the former Red Lion will have 24/7 staffing and not permit active substance use.
In the meantime, the Regional Homelessness Authority plans to use the Stevenson Motel for emergency shelter.
Catholic Community Services, contracted with the RHA to manage that project on-site, aims to rent the Stevenson for a year, according to its application with the city. The motel’s private ownership would remain unchanged.
That’s all assuming a permit for the project ends up getting approved, and the city under state law is more or less required to authorize projects like this one as long as they conform to standard safety and management expectations.
This would not be CCS’ first rodeo operating shelters: The organization operates three hotel-based shelter programs serving more than 300 people, according to its application, and has experience operating shelters in other types of buildings too.
But the project has raised some concern from local residents. City Council President Linda Kochmar mentioned during the most recent council meeting that 400 people had signed a petition regarding the Stevenson.
“We do read those,” Kochmar said. “We take those to heart. We’ll do what we can.”
The Mirror has requested a copy of that petition from the city.
Under the state legislature’s HB 1220, cities must allow indoor emergency shelters and housing in areas where they allow hotels, though they have latitude to set rules and restrictions on those shelters. So a year ago, the council passed a resolution setting noticing and licensing requirements on that process.
The rules include having distance from public schools, on-site security and supervision, and a written community engagement plan. As long as a project fits the city’s relatively procedural requirements, state law obliges the city to allow it, Ferrell said.
“We don’t have the luxury or the ability to ignore state law,” Ferrell said.