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Fate of Seattle National Archives facility still in limbo

The Seattle facility of the National Archives remains closed because of the pandemic, but is still likely to be sold; state officials are working to keep the priceless materials held in the federal facility from leaving Washington. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Radio)

It’s been six months since KIRO Radio first broke the news that the federal government, without any public input, intended to sell the Seattle facility of the National Archives and move its contents – millions of priceless maps, documents, photos and other records of Pacific Northwest history – out of state.

With only a small fraction of the materials in Seattle currently digitized, a move – perhaps to the NARA facility in Riverside, Calif. — would mean that one-of-a-kind federal records related to such things as Native American treaties, the Chinese-American Exclusion Act, and other aspects of history critical to researchers, educators, tribes and others would be far less accessible. Historians and tribal representatives were blindsided by news of the intended sale, and expressed their displeasure at an invitation-only meeting at the facility in February.

The archives serve the Pacific Alaska Region and are located on Sand Point Way near Magnuson Park. Sitting on 10 acres along the Burke-Gilman Trail, the location is prime real estate in one of the city’s nicest neighborhoods. The facility itself is housed in a World War II-era warehouse, which was converted in the early 1960s and which is operated by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The Seattle office, and most NARA facilities, have been closed to the public since March 23 because of COVID-19.

In spite of the pandemic, multiple processes appear to still be underway to try and prevent the archival materials, if not the actual NARA facility itself, from leaving Washington.

Communications staff for the office of Kim Wyman, Secretary of State, and for Bob Ferguson, State Attorney General, were less than effusive when asked by KIRO Radio for an update.

Brionna Aho, spokesperson for Bob Ferguson, wrote in an email, “I can tell you that we’re actively working on this, but I don’t have anything specific to share.”

Wyman’s communications director Kylee Zabel said, also via email, “This is an issue we’re certainly still working on and are continuing to have conversations with a variety of stakeholders, but I don’t have a specific update at this time. As you can imagine, Congress has been heavily focused on all things COVID-19. We’re still hoping to work toward a solution to collocate a facility for these records with our new Library-Archives Building.”

Earlier this year, Attorney General Ferguson had threatened legal action against the White House Office of Management & Budget, since the process by which the Seattle facility had been targeted for closure lacked any public or other stakeholder input. OMB and an obscure federal agency called the Public Buildings Reform Board, were involved as managers of a much-delayed effort to identify high-value federal property for fast-track sale.

Wyman, whose office oversees the Washington State Archives, had hoped to strike a deal whereby the records currently held in Seattle – related to the history of what’s now Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska, and dating, in some cases, to the early 19th century – would remain in Washington, perhaps co-located with a state archive facility near Olympia.

Meanwhile, NARA Chief Operating Officer William “Jay” Bosanko acknowledged via email Thursday that NARA has been talking to officials in the Evergreen State. He also says NARA staff are continuing to operate under the assumption that they will ultimately vacate the building and move the records to “existing NARA facilities” elsewhere, which would definitely mean out of state.

“We have had a set of discussions with the State of Washington that remain ongoing,” Bosanko wrote. “At this time, we need to continue to prepare to occupy the facility for as long as we can after a sale in order to ensure an orderly move of the materials to existing NARA facilities where we can better provide access to researchers in WA and the surrounding states and others.”

Based in part on NARA’s operational experiences during the current pandemic, Bosanko believes NARA’s future will be less location-dependent than ever, with more and more users accessing archives remotely rather than in-person. A future like this, of course, will require a massive, and massively expensive, effort to digitize more of NARA’s holdings.

Given the multiple federal agencies involved and the negative reaction of tribes and others when the news first broke, it’s likely that members of Washington’s congressional delegation are also involved in conversations with NARA, but this could not be confirmed as of midday Friday.

Actual sale of the Seattle real estate, and another federal property in Auburn that was targeted as part the same fast-track process, will be managed by the General Services Administration Region 9 offices in California.

Andra Higgs is a spokesperson for GSA who responded to KIRO Radio’s questions about the status of the sale of the Auburn and Seattle properties.

“GSA is completing necessary due diligence to finalize a ‘report of excess’ for both properties, as required under the FASTA law, and necessary plans for Federal tenant relocations,” Higgs wrote in an email Friday. “Upon completion of these items, GSA, in conjunction with the Public Buildings Reform Board, will develop and coordinate a public-sale strategy that could include the use of brokers. Updated information will be posted as it is developed at disposal.gsa.gov.”

The 10-acre Seattle parcel is expected to sell for multiple millions of dollars and will likely be redeveloped as a mostly residential area similar to neighboring properties.

KIRO Radio will continue reaching out to the multiple state and federal agencies involved in this process to help keep the public and other stakeholders apprised as far-reaching decisions are made about the future of millions of pieces of priceless Pacific Northwest history.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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