Washington State Parks had all but given up on saving one of its grandest buildings.
The St. Edward Seminary, a city-block-length mass of Neo-Romanesque brick and tile towering above Lake Washington, needs restoration work topping $40 million. That's about how much the park system spends each year to chip away at its $360 million maintenance backlog statewide.
Last week, an unlikely savior — a defense contractor — made a surprise bid to not only restore the 90,000-square-foot building but also lease it as office space for the next 99 years.
"Our interest is piqued, of course," said Peter Herzog, the assistant director of park development.
It's clear that, even if the bid proves strong, the park system will face challenges winning public acceptance. Another promising proposal six years ago died amid neighbors' objections, and a union representative is promising to oppose a public-private partnership that has been mentioned as part of the new proposal.
The 82-year-old building — once a Catholic school for aspiring priests — is the focal point of St. Edward State Park, a 316-acre forested and green-lawned expanse in Kenmore. The building's dining hall has been restored and is usually booked several months in advance, but the rest of the building's four stories have been closed to the public since the 1970s. From time to time, the building has served as a set for horror movies. The exterior's peach-colored bricks and red-tile roof look sturdy but the building's interior is a mess of crumbled ceilings and rain-damaged walls that worsen each year.
Park officials are working on a fast-track deal with the contractor's real-estate broker that could produce a signed lease by January. The broker, Kidder Mathews of Seattle, isn't naming the contractor, but the firm has told park officials that the contractor works for the U.S. Department of Defense.
"The (broker) mentioned the contractor is pretty sensitive about having its name out," parks leasing manager Steve Hahn said. "But if the object is to save that building, we're interested in pursuing all avenues."
In a "letter of understanding to lease" obtained by Crosscut through a public records request, Kidder Mathews indicates that the contractor is interested in just over 75,000 square feet of the seminary building. The contractor would pay for restoration work and "new office build out." Rates were not mentioned, but the contractor wants a 99-year lease once the restoration work is completed. The contractor could gain "construction access" on Jan. 1 and begin paying rent a month later, according to the letter.
"It is our client's hope that we can put something together quickly to prevent further deterioration of the seminary building thereby avoiding the burden of potential demolition and related costs to Washington State Parks," the letter states.
The proposed agreement would allow the contractor to sublet part of the building.
Kidder Mathews noted in the letter that it has discussed a possible "public/private partnership" with the city of Kenmore and Bastyr University, a naturopathic medical school with a campus neighboring the park. Kenmore and Bastyr have expressed interest in the seminary building in recent years.
The state parks commission passed a resolution on Nov. 14 — a day after receiving the letter — that announced an open-door policy for "public and private-sector partnerships" at St. Edward Park.
The resolution irked the state employees' union. "I'll fight it," said Terri McCullough of the AFSCME Council 28. McCullough said the trend of turning over portions of state parks to outside entities is costing well-paying state jobs.
Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend — which has more than 100 historic buildings — has a new partnership agreement with a nonprofit group that will put 21 state employees out of work, McCullough said.
Park commissioners said that the park system can't take care of its 600 historic buildings alone. "We're in a world of hurt," Commissioner Mark Brown said.
State funding for parks has plummeted. For decades, the state contributed 60 to 80 percent of the park system's operations budget. Now the state chips in just 15 percent, leaving parks to make up the difference with user fees, rentals and other revenue sources.
The park system's waning ability to maintain its aging buildings spurred the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation to add the entire state park system to its Most Endangered Historic Properties List of 2012. "St. Edward Seminary served as the poster child for the listing, given the high cost of the rehabilitation and the question over what to do with the building," said Chris Moore, the trust's executive director. The building was constructed in 1931 by the Seattle diocese for use as a divinity school by the Sulpician Order of Catholic priests. Because of declining enrollment, the property was sold to the state for use as a park in 1977.
The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.
Park officials have entertained several proposals for the building over the years — veterans museum, community center, environmentally-themed high school. They all had one thing in common: "No money," said parks commissioner Joe Taller.
The contractor appears unfazed by the building's multi-million dollar needs. "We made it crystal clear that the needs of the building are substantial," Hahn said.
Park officials are bracing themselves for a backlash on par with the last time a private enterprise wanted to fix up and rent the seminary. In 2005, the McMenamins brewpub chain submitted a letter of intent to lease the seminary and turn it into a 100-room hotel, restaurant and conference center. Despite the Portland-based company's reputation for restoring historical buildings, the proposal didn't go over well.
"People had their hair on fire (thinking) that we decided behind closed doors to put a microbrewery in the park," parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter said. St. Edward's users bristled at the idea of commercializing a state park. The surrounding neighborhood worried that McMenamins would turn the former seminary into something akin to a beer-soaked fraternity. McMenamins backed out in 2007 when it appeared that Kenmore city leaders were willing to make zoning changes to block the project.
If the defense contractor deal also falls through, state parks will, as parks commission chairman Rodger Schmitt put it, return to the de facto strategy of simply "spending money to keep the building from falling apart." For now, though, the system is focused on seeing if it suddenly has a real option for restoring the building that has become symbolic of its restoration needs.