Seattle's history at risk in plans for Boeing plant demolition

The city of Tukwila, which has no historic preservation ordinance, has a leading position in plans that involve the possible demolition of Boeing's Plant 2, where workers built planes critical to U.S. victory in World War II.
Crosscut archive image.

A B-17 Flying Fortress

The city of Tukwila, which has no historic preservation ordinance, has a leading position in plans that involve the possible demolition of Boeing's Plant 2, where workers built planes critical to U.S. victory in World War II.

The Seattle area will soon lose an important historic structure if Boeing and the city of Tukwila have their way: a building perhaps second only to the Hanford Reservation for its association with this state's legendary World War II history.

Boeing Plant 2 was where the B-17 — the Flying Fortress — and the B-29 — the Super Fortress — were manufactured during World War II: planes that played a pivotal role in the Allied victory in Europe. Photographs of planes being assembled in the Tukwila plant leave an indelible impression of the sheer scale of production and the enormous human effort involved in manufacturing these planes. Boeing manufactured nearly 7,000 B-17s there during World War II, running three shifts per day, peaking at 16 planes per day in 1944. Today, only 14 B-17s are left in the world — none in Washington — and only ten in flying condition, according to Scott Maher of the Liberty Foundation.

The plant sits within the boundaries of a federal project aimed at restoring the environmentally damaged habitat along the Lower Duwamish Waterway. Last May, a lawsuit was settled between Boeing and the federal government, calling on the company to restore the river bank, which supports salmonids, birds, and other wildlife, and pay $2 million to cover costs to the agencies involved. But the agreement failed to address the fact that the property contained a building of historical importance to this region, Boeing Plant 2, which is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Duwamish restoration plan calls for removal of a single 53,000-square-foot bay from the enormous 754,000-square-foot structure, listed technically as Buildings 2-41 and 2-42 but known to generations as Plant 2. Boeing, however, would like to demolish the entire plant. The company says it has not actively occupied the site for 40 years.

There has been so much public comment on the restoration plan that the U.S. Department of Justice, which is overseeing the proposed Consent Decree that governs the plan, has extended the comment period until Aug. 9, an additional 60 days due to the complexity of the subject.

Architecturally, the building is considered a landmark design solution for enclosing very large spaces. Built by the Cleveland-based Austin Engineering Co. and constructed in two major stages, in 1936 and 1941, the structure was camouflaged to make it appear from the air as a quiet residential neighborhood, thus hiding the enormous factory from enemy aircraft.

The camouflage was designed by Seattle architects John Detlie, who had a background in set design, and William Bain Sr., who was named "camouflage director" for Washington state during the war. The building is also significant as a place where women and minorities in the Seattle area during World War II had employment opportunities never before afforded them.

In the post-war era, workers continued to design and produce planes in Plant 2 for the Cold War and, as defense contracts waned, for the commercial airline market.

Boeing signed an agreement in 1994 with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean the site of heavy metals and other contaminants in the soil and ground water, and of sediment in the Duwamish Waterway. The company did not, apparently, contemplate demolishing the building at that time, nor did it initiate a 'ꀜSection 106 Review'ꀝ for Plant 2 (note that the building was not considered "historic" at that point). Implemented under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, this Section 106 requirement applies if a project receives any federal funding or needs a federal permit of some kind and involves a potential adverse effect to a listed property or a property eligible for listing on the National Register. The federal agency involved must "take into account the effect of that activity" on the proposed historic resource. This generally involves meetings among the affected parties to discuss alternatives and options for minimizing impacts.

The plant, which turned 50 in 1991, is "determined eligible" for listing on National Register of Historic Places, but that eligibility offers little real protection. A National Register property is more effectively protected if a local government has a preservation ordinance and it is listed on a local historic register. Boeing Plant 2 is shared by the cities of Tukwila and Seattle. Tukwila has no preservation ordinance; Seattle has a strong preservation ordinance but has ceded lead-agency status to Tukwila in this case.

Despite the fact that the plan calls for the removal of only one bay, Boeing and Tukwila maintain that the demolition of the entire building is necessary for the site clean-up and waterway restoration. While the company noted in a May press release that it is "developing plans to commemorate the site's historic legacy," no mention was made of the historic status of the buildings.

In the meantime, Tukwila has undertaken environmental review under the auspices of the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) for demolition of the entire structure, noting in its paperwork that there is "no probable significant adverse environmental impact" anticipated from the demolition. It appears that a Determination of Significance would have been a more appropriate call. The state's Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, however, has apparently elected to not exercise its authority under SEPA to question the city's actions and decisions. And despite the city of Tukwila's position, which would not ordinarily require mitigating for the loss of the historic structure, the city and the Boeing Company have offered a series of mitigation measures, from documenting the structure, to contributing $500,000 to the Museum of History and Industry to prepare an exhibit on the building, to placing a plaque on the property.

Currently, the building is being used to store historic aircraft for the Museum of Industry and to restore a B-17, a B-29, and a Lockheed Constellation. If the building is demolished, volunteers on those projects will have nowhere to go. The group restoring the B-17 wants to see a portion of the building preserved so that they can continue their work and for future educational and interpretive purposes.

The outcome of the environmental process and proposed demolition of Boeing Plant 2 is yet to be seen. Comments have been submitted on the environmental process and the effectiveness of planned mitigation measures. Questions have been asked of the federal agencies involved as to why Section 106 reviews have not been undertaken, answers to which are being pursued by the state and other relevant agencies. The public comment period for the Notice of Decision on the Determination of Non-Significance with the city of Tukwila expired on July 12. In response to questions about appealing the decision, the city has only said that it is appealable to Superior Court. The Department of Justice will take comments on the Consent Decree and accompanying restoration plan until Aug. 9.

Environmental review processes are intended to inform the public as well as decision-makers and bring them into the process. If the lead agency decides that there is a probable adverse impact to the environment as a result of a proposed project, an environmental impact statement can be required, with detailed analyses of the issues and a discussion of the costs and benefits of alternatives. And if an agency decides that the greater public good is served by, in this case, demolition of the structure, then the decision-makers can adopt a statement to that effect and proceed with the action.

A Section 106 review, which has not yet been pursued for this project, also focuses public attention on historic resources. Section 106 reviews bring together the various agencies involved, as well as identified stakeholders, to review the issues and again, discuss alternatives and options. The outcome is not pre-determined under SEPA or the Section 106 review process, but without informed analysis, decisions are made in a vacuum.

And a vacuum should not be the endgame that determines the significance of this important piece of Seattle's history.


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