The Nuclear Reactor Building Saga Continues


Eugenia Woo


Board member, Docomomo US/WEWA


Newsletter, Threatened, Advocacy, brutalism, WEWA
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The National Register-listed Nuclear Reactor Building isn't looking too good these days. The University of Washington (UW) erected a chain link fence around the site in May to prepare for demolition. On June 20, the University began deconstructing the building—WITHOUT a demolition permit. The UW submitted a demolition application in early May but evidently just could not wait to start destroying this significant structure.

Complaints were filed and the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections issued a stop work order and notice of violation. The UW claimed that it was abating the lead in the caulking of the windows (original character-defining features). We do not doubt there will be hazardous materials abatement that will need to be performed in preparation for the demolition, but the building has sat vacant for years and posed no threat. Windows on the two primary facades were removed, leaving massive openings into the building. It took the University almost a week to board up the openings, a requirement of the City.

Now how did we get here?

When Docomomo US-WEWA last wrote about this saga to Save the Reactor in mid-December 2015, we had just submitted a Seattle Landmark nomination application. A couple weeks later, the University filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court against the City of Seattle AND Docomomo US-WEWA, asserting that as a State institution of higher learning, it is not subject to the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance. In Seattle, owner consent is not required for nomination and designation. Anyone may submit a landmark nomination. Docomomo US/WEWA Board members spent the holidays looking for legal representation. Fortunately, we found a great attorney who has been guiding us through this process.

Historic Seattle and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation intervened in the lawsuit in support of Docomomo US/WEWA. We are grateful for their support because together, all three organizations represent a large preservation constituency in our city and state. For this advocacy effort, we are known as "Save the Reactor."  Oral arguments were presented in King County Superior Court by the City, UW and Save the Reactor on April 1. That's right. April Fool's Day. No joke!

On April 14, Superior Court Judge Suzanne Parisien issued an order granting the University of Washington its motion for summary judgment in its lawsuit against defendants City of Seattle and Docomomo US/WEWA, and intervenors Historic Seattle and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. We are disappointed in Judge Suzanne Parisien's decision which did not rule on all the substantive issues of the case. Instead, her Memorandum of Opinion states that the University is not an "owner" as defined in the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, and as such, did not bother to rule on the other issues. This "technicality" is somewhat farfetched because in what other scenario would the UW say it's not an "owner"? The University clearly owns the Seattle campus. A few years ago, through a private developer, the UW voluntarily submitted a landmark nomination for Husky Stadium in the hopes that it would not get nominated or designated because the University was planning to rebuild its football stadium. The UW was just trying to clear the way for a smoother permitting process with the City and didn't want some pesky neighbor or preservation group to try to get the much-altered old stadium landmarked. The Landmarks Preservation Board did not nominate the stadium. The UW complies with the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance when it seeks Landmarks Preservation Board approval for work on its buildings at Sand Point Naval Air Station Historic District. And UW Tacoma is located in a designated local historic district. Is the UW not an owner in those cases? The University seems to pick and choose when it wishes to follow a local landmarks ordinance.

After the disappointing Superior Court decision was issued, Save the Reactor reviewed options. We encouraged the City of Seattle to appeal the decision to the State Court of Appeals and asked the City to seek a stay of demolition. The City chose to appeal but did not seek a stay. We assume this was for political reasons mostly. And the City is more focused on the larger jurisdictional issues of City and University. But for Save the Reactor and other supporters, this advocacy is about BOTH the Nuclear Reactor Building and the larger issues. We joined the City of Seattle in its appeal to the State Court of Appeals. We also looked into seeking a stay of demolition but after much discussion with our attorney, we decided not to pursue a stay because of the possibility of having to post an appeal bond backed up by collateral. Docomomo WEWA has no real property to use as collateral but Historic Seattle and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation both own significant historic properties. If the stay was granted and we lose the appeal, then we could be liable to the University who could claim damages from delay of demolition and construction of its new project. This is a risk that Save the Reactor could not take. The UW has an annual operating budget of almost $6 billion. Save the Reactor has a combined operating budget of less than $3.5 million. We're somewhat outmatched when it comes to resources.

As a public institution the University of Washington needs to be a good neighbor within the city. For years, we have maintained that there are alternatives to demolishing the National Register-listed Nuclear Reactor Building and there is at least one alternative site for its proposed Computer Science and Engineering II building. Of course, this case is not just about the Nuclear Reactor Building. There are broader implications and impacts related to the entire campus and to any property the University owns. The University need not be so afraid of external efforts to recognize and honor its heritage and legacy. We have always advocated for a creative design solution that presents a win-win for the UW and advocates, but this position has been consistently ignored by the University.

View showing building now boarded up. Credit: Docomomo US/WEWA

What's Next?

We anticipate going before the State Court of Appeals this fall, with a decision in early 2017. The University's plans are to demolish the Nuclear Reactor Building after completing SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) mitigation and obtaining a demolition permit. The UW's self-imposed "mitigation" for demolition is documenting the exterior to HABS Level 1 standards and producing a 3-D virtual tour of the interior. That's it. In our view, there's no mitigation for demolition because once a resource is destroyed, it's gone forever. The University intends to scrap the site—the building and over forty trees—as soon as possible (it is hoping to do so this summer). Save the Reactor is monitoring the process closely. Neither a demolition permit nor a master use permit for the new construction replacement project has been issued as of this writing. We do know the University would like to start construction in January 2017, but whether it obtains the required permits in time for that start date is yet to be determined. We do know there is no administrative appeal to the City Hearing Examiner for the demolition permit, but the City's decision on whether to grant or deny the demolition permit can be appealed to King County Superior Court through a land use petition. All three Save the Reactor organizations have standing in this case and can appeal.

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