Can Seattle help create the ‘National Archives for the 22nd Century’?

Feb 17, 2021, 12:10 PM | Updated: 1:37 pm
National Archives Seattle National Archives Seattle

As was indicated would happen following a hearing in Seattle last Friday, Feb. 12, a federal judge on Tuesday formally granted a preliminary injunction putting a stop to the sale of the National Archives building in Seattle. The sale is now officially on hold until a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Bob Ferguson can be heard.

What U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour granted – a preliminary injunction – means that the Public Buildings Reform Board, an obscure federal agency, may no longer sell the National Archives building and 10 acres of land to raise money for the federal government as it had planned to do for more than a year.  The stop is temporary, but it was granted by Judge Coughenour because he believes the state is likely to prevail in its lawsuit against four federal agencies — Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB); General Services Administration (GSA); the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB); and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) – involved in the decision to sell the building in the first place.

“Judge Coughenour still will likely need to reach a final decision on the case,” Ferguson said in an interview with KIRO Radio after Friday’s hearing. “That said, the fact that he granted our motion today and the way he expressed that during the hearing today puts us in a very, very strong position to prevail in this case ultimately, that’s clear.”

The process of identifying the real estate for quick disposal was flawed, in that stakeholders, including tribes, were not consulted, and no public notice whatsoever was given regarding the potential for the building to be closed and the contents moved to California and Missouri. Since news of the potential sale first broke in January 2020, a growing coalition of tribes, history museums, historical societies, educators and genealogists have protested the move, and many joined the lawsuit filed by Attorney General Ferguson as plaintiffs.

But if the judge’s action this week means that the building is truly no longer threatened with closure and sale, what might be next for the federal facility and for its priceless contents?

By some internal NARA accounts, the building – which dates to the 1940s, and which comprises a little less than 190,000 square feet – does need significant maintenance and system upgrades. Estimates for the work, which could be phased over several years, are in the range of tens of millions of dollars. The roof is still the original wood, and the HVAC system needs to be updated for modern climate control and proper preservation of paper and other archival materials.

And much of the materials held there – those priceless photos, letters, maps, treaties, and records dating as far back as the 1850s – do need to be digitized to be made remotely accessible. which is not an insignificant benefit of the Seattle building remaining in government hands). Digitization also helps ensure long-term preservation.

How committed to addressing these needs are the various agencies and elected officials who have some say in the matter? KIRO Radio reached out to as many of the players as possible in the past few days to find out.

Communications staff at the National Archives and Records Administration’s main office in Washington, D.C., were asked about the agency’s plans for the Seattle facility in the immediate future. They said via email that they don’t comment on pending litigation, but some NARA officials in the past have said their agency is chronically underfunded, and that many of their facilities are in need of capital improvements and other upgrades – and that a backlog of digitization needs could take decades and untold resources to complete.

And while NARA is the agency that manages the archives, and it’s NARA employees who work there, the part of the government that owns and maintains the building is actually the General Services Administration or GSA. GSA communications staff referred KIRO Radio to the White House Office of Management and Budget or OMB. It’s a case of confusing alphabet soup, but the OMB also oversees the Public Buildings Reform Board – or PBRB – the agency whose staff and board members, appointed by the Trump Administration, get most of the blame for what went wrong in Seattle.

“Given the concerns raised during last week’s hearing and this administration’s firm belief in working with tribes,” wrote an OMB spokesperson, “we will further assess the previous administration’s process leading to the sale recommendation and evaluate our options.”

What this may mean is that, because the Biden Administration is now overseeing the OMB and the PBRB, there may be no further steps taken to sell the Seattle facility, assuming Attorney General Ferguson’s lawsuit is successful. In a follow-up question to the OMB, KIRO Radio asked if the Biden Administration might move to appoint new staff and board members to the PBRB, and effectively remove the team who managed the flawed process. The OMB did not respond.

Since the funding to address the maintenance and digitization needs in Seattle will have to come from the federal government, KIRO Radio contacted the offices of Representative Pramila Jayapal (the building is in her district), as well as Senator Maria Cantwell and Senator Patty Murray.

It may be too early – early in the process, early in the session, even early in the Biden era – to get anything substantive from the delegation in terms of a commitment to dialing for federal dollars for the Seattle National Archives, but Senator Murray’s office did provide a brief statement:

“I appreciate all the work by local Tribes, stakeholders, and officials to keep these vital records in the Pacific Northwest, and I will continue working with the Biden-Harris Administration to explore every option available, including the appropriations process, to ensure that they remain accessible to local stakeholders.”

In the meantime, it does seem that maintaining the status quo at Sand Point – a sleepy building, with very little in the way of a public profile that not many people even knew existed a year ago – only invites more potential trouble in the future, if and when NARA or one of the other agencies again goes in search of real estate to sell.

It also seems that, along with the system upgrades, roof replacement, and digitization efforts, the Seattle branch could be made more welcoming to the public, and could ultimately be re-imagined as something more of a “history research destination,” not unlike the Seattle Room at the Central Branch of the Seattle Public Library. And, as long as everything is on the table, a creative architect might even be able to come up with a plan whereby some of the parking lot – which is larger than it needs to be – could be utilized as space to create affordable housing.

This approach would likely require a partnership with the City of Seattle. What does Councilmember Alex Pedersen, whose district includes the National Archives, think of this possibility?

In a statement provided by a member of his staff, Councilmember Pedersen wrote:

“With the good news of the court postponing the sale of the National Archives facility in my district, we are hopeful the new Biden Administration will agree that Trump Administration officials did not follow the law and it’s best simply to keep the vital historical documents here. As our congressional delegation already supports keeping the facility in the Northwest, ideally they can find federal resources to pay for any necessary upgrades to the facility. Now that we are on the verge of achieving our goal to save the archives, it would be premature and counterproductive to speculate on future real estate schemes for that property on Sand Point Way.”

While Pedersen is clearly not enthusiastic about reimagining the National Archives near Sand Point, at least one of his constituents is.

Pam Xander lives near the National Archives and is president of that neighborhood’s Hawthorne Hills Community Club.

The notion of a big picture re-imagining of the secure warehouse – at last check, surrounded by a barbed wire-topped cyclone fence – to make it more welcoming, and more integrated into the neighborhood, is consistent with what Xander believes her group has been focused on for some time.

“What are the opportunities that might be there to enhance the site?” Xander said. “That’s where I think this dovetails well with what we’ve been trying to get done on other sites – you know, take that opportunity now since the focus is on [the National Archives building], and let’s see if we can make that site even better.”

What Xander and her neighbors have been trying do for all development in that area is ensure that new projects are consistent with the city’s own stated goals around becoming carbon neutral, and about considering things like open space, density, transportation choices and affordable housing.

“I don’t know if any of that could be incorporated on the site or if there’d be any renovation that would allow for that,” Xander said. “But we’d like to see it consistent with the residential neighborhood that’s there and, definitely, I think a new front-facing, more welcoming part to the building would be would be a really great aesthetic. Now, how you do that financially? I’m not sure.”

On Friday, Attorney General Ferguson told KIRO Radio that he plans to reconvene the coalition his office put together for the lawsuit – made up of tribes, museums, historical societies, the State of Oregon, and others with an interest in keeping the facility in Seattle.

“We’re organizing a meeting with the coalition of tribes and organizations who brought this lawsuit with my office,” Ferguson said, “to chat about next steps for making sure these records stay here in Washington state, and bring in additional stakeholders to that process.”

Ferguson’s coalition is a powerful group representing a large and diverse number of constituents. With the right leadership and a solid strategy, this group could be key to what happens next at Sand Point, and perhaps what happens next for the National Archives – whether using political leverage to get federal funding, facilitating partnerships with the City of Seattle or with Secretary of State Kim Wyman, or even working with Northwest tech companies to imagine some new way of digitizing and making accessible the archival materials through some yet-to-be designed interface.

If any NARA facility has the potential to be re-imagined as the “National Archives for the 22nd Century,” doesn’t it seem like the place where this has the best chance to happen would be Seattle?

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.

Feliks Banel

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Can Seattle help create the ‘National Archives for the 22nd Century’?