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UW launches attack on city’s historic preservation powers

The More Hall Annex Credit: Courtesy of Save the Reactor

The University of Washington board of regents has green-lit a project that will result in the demolition of a nationally recognized historic structure on its Seattle campus.

At a Board of Regents meeting Thursday, the board approved the recommendation of the university administration to build a second Computer Science and Engineering center, a $104.6 million-project that will connect with the current Paul G. Allen Center on the UW campus. The project meets the goals of the UW in expanding training for undergraduates and graduate students in computer science at a time when the school is also committed to turning the University District into a high-tech hub. The new building, if it goes ahead, would be open to students in 2019.

While few debate the value of the expansion, a sticking point has been More Hall Annex, aka the Nuclear Reactor Building, a mid-century modern structure that once housed a small reactor for training future nuclear engineers. The building was designed by a collaboration of a brilliant group of the UW’s own architects and designers in the 1960s, and was listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places in 2008/9 — over the university’s vigorous objections. It received recognition during a previous move by the UW to demolish the structure. Preservationists have rallied to the building’s cause as a brilliant Brutalist expression of the Cold War period and the Sputnik-inspired push to advance science and technology. The reactor, by the way, has been long de-commissioned, and the structure is vacant.

While the new project has received the go-ahead despite strong objections by the preservation community during the Environmental Impact Statement process, the fight to save the Nuke Building is not over, and a move by the UW itself late last year has raised the stakes significantly. Last December, the UW sued the city of Seattle and a small, all-volunteer preservation group, Docomomo-WeWA. The latter all-volunteer organization is devoted to preserving modern architecture in the Northwest and has submitted a nomination of the reactor building for city landmark status to Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board.

That application caused the UW to file suit claiming the city of Seattle has no right to landmark anything on UW’s Seattle campus. It also claims that state law and previous agreements regarding campus development exempt the UW from such interference.

The suit was filed in King County Superior Court and a hearing is scheduled for April 1 (yes, April Fool’s Day).

The complaint, prepared by attorneys at Foster Pepper on behalf of the attorney general’s office, makes clear that the landmarks ordinance could be a nuisance to the UW’s ambitious growth plans outlined in UW’s Campus Master Plan, which calls for over 9 million square feet of new development on 68 sites and the demolition of nearly 900,000 square feet of existing properties. That plan, which serves as a guide for future development, was approved by the city and regents in 2003. The campus has many structures that are considered historic architectural treasures, and thus subject to potential city restrictions on their demolition, and the UW says it is currently consulting with the city to prepare an inventory of historic assets.

The UW claims that it has its own internal process for making preservation decisions on its properties that supersedes going through the city landmarks process. It is understood that a city decision to landmark the building would be a sure thing, since it has already received the seal of approval at the national and state level. Citing the Board of Regent’s inherent authority, state law and agreements it says it has with the city, the UW suit calls any landmarking of structures on its Seattle campus to be “outside the city’s jurisdiction and authority, and arbitrary, capricious and illegal.” It asserts the regents have been granted “full control” of the university’s lands by the state.

Curiously, Husky Stadium was submitted for a landmark in 2011 during its renovation. It was not accepted, but still, the filing of the application did not trigger a lawsuit. If the landmarks ordinance as applied to the UW is “capricious and illegal,” why did the UW recently avail itself of the law it now rejects? Probably for expedience in permitting, a common developer tactic, to be assured that the city won’t put restrictions on their development.

The City Attorney’s office is preparing to defend the city’s rights in court. The question is bigger than a single historic structure or even the landmarks ordinance. The state’s Growth Management Act stipulates that state agencies must comply with local development regulations. That appears to be at odds with state law granting the university’s Regents “full control” of its properties.

Dealings between the UW and the city have tended to finesse this unresolved potential conflict. Sally Clark, the former city councilmember who is now the UW’s director of regional and community relations, says the city and UW have previously “agreed to disagree” about such jurisdictional issues and negotiated work-arounds.

With so much development coming down the pike on and off campus, the suit presents a chance to resolve once and for all whether the UW can operate outside local regulatory authority or not. A decision could impact more than the Seattle campus, but might set a precedent that eventually eventually be felt on the university’s downtown Metropolitan tract (part of which is currently being redeveloped) and elsewhere in the state where the UW has properties, such as Friday Harbor, Tacoma, and Bothell.

Docomomo-WeWA has hired its own attorney, noted Seattle environmental and land use lawyer David Bricklin. Also, there is word that two more preservation organizations will be allowed to intervene in the case to opposed the UW’s stand: Historic Seattle, the public non-profit preservation authority, and the Washington Trust for Historical Preservation. Bricklin says by suing Docomomo, the UW lawsuit could have a chilling effect on other small groups or citizens that might want to file landmark nominations, which the public, largely un-lawyered, is entitled to do. The UW has lots of attorneys, he says, and is set up to handle lawsuits. For small groups like Docomomo, it’s a huge deal and financial hit. Bricklin also says the UW shouldn’t be trying to set up one set of rules for itself while the city abides by another set.

Another party getting involved is the state’s Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, which oversees the state’s federally approved preservation programs, such as the city of Seattle’s. The department’s head, Allyson Brooks, does not want to see the programs embroiled in litigation and says she’s convening a “high level discussion” with representatives of the city and UW later this month. She says she’s “hopeful that both sides can meet their goals without conflict.”

If that doesn’t work and the UW’s landmark lawsuit prevails, it would smooth the way for the UW to engage in the normal permitting process for its Computer Science and Engineering II project and give it leverage with the city in future development plans, such as making revisions to the current campus master plan, a draft of which is due this spring. Clark says the new plan is not likely to be demolition-heavy as it will emphasize development on the West Campus (UW properties generally west of 15th and south of 40th), and the emerging East Campus, such as the eventual development of the Montlake parking lots. It might also make redevelopment on the UW’s property downtown at Rainier Square easier. The city and the UW have been bumping heads down there for many years.

If the city prevails, it would very likely result in protection for the Nuclear Reactor Building  and require the UW to adopt another alternative, such as building on another site or incorporating the structure into the new facility, options the UW has explored — some say unenthusiastically — and already rejected but which preservationists believe are feasible, indeed a necessity to save an important piece of architecture that has been valued highly by experts at the state and federal level. It could also finally establish that the UW must abide by local regulatory rules here and elsewhere.

This is a preservation battle with major stakes at the architectural heritage level and the potential to disrupt preservation efforts elsewhere in the state. It also has the potential to shape or reshape the city and the UW’s future plans and operating relationship: Is the UW above local regulations, or is what develops on the UW campus and other properties solely in the hands of an elite, appointed board and none of the city’s business? A settlement or agreement between the UW and the city could perhaps find a way to continue to dodge the issue, but the question could also soon be answered in court.

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