Judge cancels sale of historic Seattle bank

The Federal Reserve was found to have violated federal law in sale of its downtown bank branch.
Crosscut archive image.

Money bunker: the 1950 Federal Reserve Bank building in downtown Seattle.

The Federal Reserve was found to have violated federal law in sale of its downtown bank branch.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik has handed down his decision in the case of The Committee for the Preservation of the Seattle Federal Reserve Bank Building v. the Federal Reserve Bank. He found for the Committee and ordered the Fed's sale of the bank nullified, finding it "unlawful." I previewed the case here, and covered the hearing here.

Judge Lasnik found that the Federal Reserve had violated both the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) by selling the building before undertaking an assessment of options that might have preserved the structure, including an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). These rules guide the process assessing the environmental and cultural heritage impacts of federal projects.

The Federal Reserve Seattle branch was built by one of Seattle's leading architects, William Bain, Sr., a co-founder of the prominent firm NBBJ. Documents also suggest that the bank may have been designed by one of the nation's leading modern designers, Pietro Belluschi. That, however, was not relevant to the judge's decision.

Lasnik found that the Fed had violated NEPA because the sale of the building occurred before a full environmental assessment has been undertaken, and that the sale, no matter how amended after the fact, realistically precluded some of the options to destroying the building, which is eligible for the National Historic Register.

Historic preservation consultant Art Skolnik, head of the Committee, was thrilled with the decision. "This sends a the clear message that governments have to follow their own rules and regulations and not bypass the open process of public input and data gathering critical to historic preservation."

The Committee's attorney, Peter Eglick, and said it was unusual for a judge to cancel a sale. He called the bank's behavior "egregious." Lily Ruiz, a spokesperson for the Federal Reserve, says the bank is still reviewing the court's decision and otherwise has no comment.

The Committee also asked the judge to order the Fed to waive the five-year rule preventing reconsideration of the bank building as a Seattle landmark. The Fed nominated the building in the hope that its landmark status would be turned down, an important step in being able to move forward with the sale of the building. The Seattle Landmarks Board rejected the building as a city landmark on June 4, 2008, but the judge found nothing to indicate the nomination or subsequent landmark decision violated federal process. The building was quickly sold to an unnamed buyer in August of that year.

The court rejected the Fed's contention that public input on an earlier EIS for the Seattle Monorail project helped fulfill its own public-input obligations under NEPA. Input had to be gathered before any sale, not after, said the judge, and through the Fed's own NEPA efforts. Since the lawsuit was filed against them, the Fed has subsequently undertaken an EIS. By selling the building first, the Fed "irrevocably" limited its options, said the judge. This also violated the Fed's obligations under Section 111 of the NHPA which requires consideration of solutions such as adaptive re-use.

What's next? The judge left that open. He has ordered the Fed to cancel the sales agreement and told them why. The ball, presumably, is back in their court, and their next steps will be closely watched.


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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.