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Officials knew Seattle National Archives facility might close for months without public feedback

Gary and Cheryl Steele came from Kingston, Washington to visit the National Archives' Seattle facility to research World War I veterans for whom memorial trees were planted in Kingston a century ago. (Feliks Banel for KIRO Radio)

KIRO Radio learned Friday morning that the Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB), the federal agency recommending the closure and sale of Seattle’s National Archives facility in a process without any public input, briefed the staff of Representative Pramila Jayapal about its recommendations in late of October of last year.

As KIRO Radio reported Wednesday, the Seattle facility was identified as a “high value asset,” and was deemed to be underutilized as part of 2016 legislation called “Federal Assets Sale and Transfer” or FASTA.

Early Friday, Rep. Jayapal’s office confirmed that they received a briefing on Oct. 29, 2019, and suggested that they believed the PBRB would conduct outreach to local public officials.

Local staff of the National Archives only learned of the recommended closure on Monday. Seattle City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, whose district includes the facility, said via email early Friday that he also learned on Monday (via an email from the PBRB), and that this was the first time the agency had reached out to anyone with the City of Seattle.

Pedersen said he will receive a briefing from the PBRB in February, but that may be too late to have any impact on the process. Councilmember Pedersen, who was elected in November, did not respond to a follow-up email asking whether or not he supported the closure and sale.

An original list of recommended closures was finalized on Oct. 31, 2019, and submitted to the federal Office of Management and Budget. Based on OMB feedback, a revised list was submitted (and, along with the October 31 list), and posted online on Nov. 27, 2019. First word of the existence of the current list came via a piece in Federal News Network that was posted earlier this week.

Meanwhile, the OMB has until Sunday, Jan. 26 to either accept the full list of recommended closures and sales, or reject it. If they accept the list, what’s been described as an “expedited sale and disposal process” begins. This could see the buildings sold in a little more than a year.

The Seattle building is one of about a dozen on the list, and appears to be the only federal property targeted to have generated any pushback from the public. Since Wednesday, historians and others who value having the facility in Seattle have been sending letters to lawmakers, and posting and sharing updates on social media. Also on the list is the 128-acre “Auburn Complex” of the General Services Administration, located at 400 15th Street SW in Auburn.

There’s no question the 10-acre Seattle parcel where the National Archives currently sits is valuable, and that it would be an appropriate place for uses other than a federal facility — such as affordable housing or a public park — were it not already serving a unique and valuable role. Unlike earlier federal processes that closed military bases, the FASTA legislation offers no option to local jurisdictions to seek ownership of the identified properties.

Most of the objection comes from the fact that should the facility be closed and sold, the materials in it — federal documents, maps, photos and other records for what’s now Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska dating back as early as the 1840s — would be moved to National Archives facilities in Riverside, California and Kansas City, Missouri.

And because only a tiny percentage of the materials stored in Seattle have been digitized, the loss of the archives would be a significant blow to the professional and amateur historians, legal researchers, and genealogists who visit the public areas of the building year-round. There appear to be no plans to find a closer location for the priceless materials.

A retired couple visiting the facility earlier this week were gathering military draft records from World War I to assist with the renovation of a memorial in Kingston, Washington. The memorial consists of trees planted for local soldiers who died in World War I.

“That would be heartbreaking,” said Cheryl Steele of Kingston when she learned of the recommended closure and sale. “What are future historians for the Northwest supposed to do? This is easy access for the University of Washington, and all the students there that are studying history to come here and do their research.”

Bottom line, there has been no public process and no effort to gather feedback about the recommended closure and sale of this longtime federal facility and local asset.

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