UW flips city the bird over historic preservation

Nuclear reactor

The More Hall Annex

The showdown between the University of Washington and the City of Seattle over the city’s landmarks ordinance, and whether it applies to the UW campus, is approaching on April 1, but it’s no April Fool’s joke. If the university wins it could set a precedent for exempting the UW and other state universities from local land-use laws. If the city prevails, Seattle’s landmarks ordinance could apply to buildings on campus, including the historic More Hall Annex, aka the Nuclear Reactor Building, which the UW wants to tear down but preservationists want to save.

In a rapidly developing city, the suit is a high-stakes legal struggle over what development rules apply and where. The UW has chosen to pursue a “nuclear” option on the city’s landmarks process, using arguments that the city sees as a threat to its authority.

The UW argues that the state constitution exempts it from the landmarks law, and has no say in its plans to demolish the Nuke Building to make way for a new computer science and engineering building (CSE2). The Nuke Building once housed a “teaching” reactor for nuclear engineers. Designed by an all-star team of Northwest architects in the early 1960s, the Brutalist-style structure is on the State and National Register of Historic Places.

The nomination of the building for city landmark status by the modern architecture preservation group Docomomo-WeWA triggered the UW’s lawsuit late last year. The university is suing the volunteer group as well as the city. The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation and Historic Seattle have also been allowed to intervene in the case.

The UW’s argument comes down to its belief that the state constitution gives its Board of Regents sole discretion over development plans on its properties and that, generally speaking, those plans have already been signed-off on by the city in a negotiated master plan for the campus. The city argues that this isn’t a constitutional issue, but rather that the UW is subject to state and local land-use regulations as spelled out in the Growth Management Act.

In advance of the April 1 court date, court documents continue to be filed. One of the more intriguing is a declaration by the city’s soon-to-retire longtime Historic Preservation Officer Karen Gordon. Gordon has been in her position since 1984 and has been a stalwart of running the landmarks program. In her March 18 declaration, Gordon expressed frustration with the UW’s lack of cooperation in finding a way to head-off a legal confrontation:

“I regret the University has long spurned attempts by my staff and me to discuss the likely prospect of the Annex being nominated and potential design solutions that might allow us to negotiate a[n]…agreement that would enable the University to meet its educational needs while preserving a historic property.”

Even if landmark status were conferred, the city and the UW could negotiate over how and how much to preserve or incorporate into the new design if building CSEII at another location isn’t feasible. Facadism, for example, is sometimes a compromise, which can preserve a building’s exterior (examples abound in the Pike-Pine corridor). Other buildings have successfully been incorporated into new ones — the historic 1920s era William O. McKay auto dealership absorbed into Paul Allen’s brain institute in South Lake Union is an example. Preservation is generally a collaborative process.

Gordon says she has talked “intermittently” with the UW since 2009 over finding a way to achieve a win-win “but the University has chosen to continue to assert its jurisdictional argument rather than engage with our office or the Landmarks Preservation Board…” Her discussions dated from the time when the structure was granted national and state register historic status, making its eventual city landmark nomination almost certain and likely to be approved.

Gordon says she strongly encouraged the UW to hire architects for the new project that could craft a solution that might incorporate the old building with the new:

“Instead of engaging with City staff to explore solutions, the University retained design professionals whom I do not recognize as having sufficient relevant experience with the City's collaborative approach to historic preservation. The alternatives those professionals presented in the environmental review documents for the Computer Science and Engineering II project are uninformed by any collaboration with the Board or its staff.”

Such public criticism of process is highly unusual. Many discussions between the city and developers regarding landmarks are often discreet and out of public hearing.

The city’s preservation efforts have been on the defensive lately. Gordon’s retirement has given rise to speculation about who will replace her. Will it be a strong advocate of the landmarks process? A recent hearing examiner’s decision that overturned a city decision to ignore a recommendation of the Pioneer Square Preservation board has roiled the preservation and developer communities. Preservationists saw the city’s decision as outrageous and applauded the hearing examiner’s decision to overturn it, but that outcome could lead to a court challenge over the wording of city law regarding guidelines about the design of structures in or near historic districts.

Disputed in court filings from the city and UW is which of the combatants has the Growth Management Act on its side. The UW argues that the city landmarks law inhibits its ability to execute its Master Plan, which the University was required to complete under the GMA. It argues that the city’s landmarks law is a pre-GMA relic allows “ad hoc” citizen nominations to disrupt planning. On the other hand, the city argues that the GMA requires state agencies adhere to local regulations, like the landmarks ordinance. The UW counters that it is not legally a “state agency.” Docomomo points out that the GMA specifically states that historic is one of the goals of the act.

Some who have looked at the UW lawsuit suggest that, both in the U-District and its downtown Metropolitan tract, the university is thinking less like the managers of an ivy-draped college campus and more like a commercial developer and wants as much control as it can get. The city worries at the precedent a UW victory would set across the state.

Others, including Docomomo, question whether the lawsuit is “ripe for judicial review.” Since the city’s landmarks ordinance has yet to be applied in the case of the Nuke Building, suing now is premature, the argument goes.

On the other hand, the differences between the city and the UW are longstanding having existed mostly in the agree-to-disagree zone. It appears that what started as a clash over a Cold War era bunker has escalated to a power struggle between the city and its premier public institution of higher education.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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