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Power struggle: Preservationists go nuclear at University of Washington

The 1961 nuclear reactor building on the University of Washington campus was demolished last week. (Feliks Banel)
LISTEN: Preservationists go nuclear at University of Washington

The demolition last week of the old nuclear reactor building on the University of Washington campus has exposed the base of old concrete foundations and plenty of twisted rebar. It’s also laid bare a power struggle between the Home o’ the Huskies and the City of Seattle.

Preservationists had hoped to save the 1961 structure for its local architectural roots, for what it represented in the history of nuclear engineering, and how it spoke to Washington’s complex role in atomic science.

Some imagined the old reactor building incorporated into whatever new structure occupied the site, perhaps serving as a satellite location for the new Manhattan Project National Park.

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“The interesting thing about this building being plunked in the middle of a campus is that they put in these picture windows so that you could actually walk up and look down and see guys in white coats doing their work,” said writer Knute Berger of and Seattle Magazine, who often covers the historic preservation beat and who’s written extensively about the nuclear reactor building.

“One of the unique aspects was it was essentially trying to bring transparency to what had been a top-secret process during World War II and the 1950s,” said Berger. “It was trying to bring that out into the open and make this kind of science and engineering part of our daily lives.”

Berger said that while the nuclear reactor building may not have fit most people’s traditional definitions of architectural beauty, it was distinctive, and it played a unique role unlike just about any other building within hundreds of miles.

“I describe it to people as looking like a concrete cabana,” Berger said. “It was a low-slung structure with glass windows around it and it looked kind of like a bunker with picture windows. But most of it was underground because it contained an actual small nuclear reactor they called it a teaching reactor. This is where, in the early 1960s, they trained the future generation of nuclear engineers.”

The reactor was decommissioned years ago, and the building sat unused for decades. Walking tours from the old Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) in nearby Montlake often visited on summer weekends, with crowds of history enthusiasts lining the glass windows and cupping their hands around their eyes to get a better look inside.

In 2008, the UW made moves toward demolishing the building. But a UW student named Abby (Martin) Inpanbutr took up the cause, and successfully nominated it to the National Register of Historic Places. Meanwhile, the Great Recession kicked in and the UW’s demolition plans were put on hold.

Fast-forward to 2014, and the UW again moved to demolish the building, as plans gelled for a new Computer Science and Engineering facility on the site. In December 2015, a group of preservationists from DOCOMOMO WEWA stepped up and nominated the old reactor to the City of Seattle’s Landmark Preservation Board.

In one of the many regulatory quirks of historic preservation, the potential City of Seattle Landmark Designation represented a more onerous hurdle to the UW than being listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

And speaking of quirks, the University of Washington and the City of Seattle have had a curiously quirky relationship over the years when it comes to historic preservation of buildings on campus.

“There’s been, I think, what both parties, the city, and the university, would describe as sort of a détente,” said Sally Clark, director of regional and community relations for the UW. “There have been many, many years of agreeing to disagree about whether the city’s Landmark Preservation [Ordinance] extends into this state property, the University of Washington.”

As the former Seattle City Council member Clark describes it, the UW and city officials have maintained what can be described as an informal process when it comes to enforcing or not enforcing the city’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance on campus. This was done to avoid having to settle the jurisdiction question, and to give the UW, as the owner of dozens of potentially historic buildings, maximum flexibility.

“The parties have worked together over the years on different projects, they have found work-arounds,” Clark said. “There have been historic reviews of projects in the past, but without the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance really kicking in and putting any kinds of restrictions on a project.”

All of this changed — the détente ended, you might say — when DOCOMOMO WEWA, acting as an independent third party, nominated the nuclear reactor building to the City Landmarks Preservation Board last December.

It wasn’t long after this that the UW sued DOCOMOMO WEWA and the City of Seattle, claiming the city ordinance did not apply to buildings on campus.

“One of the reasons why we got involved is to bring [the process] back to the people, and it is a public university,” said Eugenia Woo of Historic Seattle and DOCOMOMO WEWA. “The University of Washington should not forget that. It is a public university, and it has a duty to be a good neighbor in the city and to play by the rules, though how you define the rules has been debatable,” Woo said.

In April, King County Superior Court Judge Suzanne Parisien found in favor of the UW, citing lack of clarity in the wording of the city’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance — something that preservationists have described as a “ridiculous technicality.”

“While making no ruling regarding the applicability of any other local development regulation to the University of Washington,” Judge Parisien wrote in a Memorandum of Opinion, “as to the LPO [Landmark Preservation Ordinance], it has no application because the University is not a ‘person’ or ‘owner’ as defined in the LPO.”

She continued, “The LPO defines ‘owner’ of property as ‘a person having a fee simple interest, a substantial beneficial interest of record or a substantial beneficial interest known to the [Landmarks Preservation] Board in an object, site or improvement.’ The LPO defines ‘person’ as an ‘individual, partnership, corporation, group or association.’”

“There is nothing ambiguous about these definitions, and they must be applied according to their plain meaning,” Judge Parisien wrote. “The University is none of these things.”

Beyond the language issues, Judge Parisien went a bit further in the final paragraph of her memo. Through one sentence in particular, she seemed to grant the UW a certain exceptional status that could be interpreted as fully excusing the school (and, perhaps, any public institution of learning) from the jurisdiction of the City of Seattle’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance.

“State institutions of higher education are encumbered with a public purpose that is essential to the future of the State, and this public purpose requires that the campus continues to be developed to meet the growing and changing educational needs of the people of the State,” Judge Parisien wrote.

With this ruling in hand, the UW sought a demolition permit from the City of Seattle and began tearing down the old reactor building last Tuesday. It’s now mostly leveled.

After the judge’s ruling, DOCOMOMO WEWA could’ve sought an injunction to stop the demolition, but Eugenia Woo says this would’ve exposed her volunteer group to thousands of dollars of potential liabilities if the case was ultimately found in the UW’s favor.

In spite of the building being lost, the City of Seattle is appealing Judge Parisien’s ruling in hopes of settling the jurisdiction issue as it relates to all historic properties on campus.

“The judge did determine that the University is not a corporation, and we respectfully disagree with the judge’s conclusion,” said Patrick Downs, an assistant city attorney for the City of Seattle. “The University of Washington was established by the state legislature as a corporation.”

Downs also seems to disagree with Judge Parisien’s interpretation regarding the validity of the “public purpose” that would allow the UW to make its own historic preservation decisions.

“The City believes that state law is clear that the University of Washington is subject to local development regulations, including the Landmark Preservation Ordinance,” Downs said. “There’s a state law, the Growth Management Act, that says exactly that state agencies are subject to local development regulations.”

But Downs also understands why the UW, or any property owner, would seek an exemption.

“They want to exercise full discretion over how they address their physical plant and have full discretion to determine that any given building is within their sole discretion to figure out what to do with it, whether to rehabilitate it demolish it,” Downs said. “That’s the classical tension between a Landmark Preservation Ordinance that recognizes the historical value that buildings have in the fabric of a city or even on a campus, versus a property owner’s wish to do whatever they want to do with their building.”

While Sally Clark is unequivocal about wanting the UW to remain beyond the reach of the city’s ordinance, she also says that the UW is proud of “the policies that it has internally and the work it does internally to really care take for the historic aspects all over this campus.”

The current appeal process will likely stretch into 2017, and perhaps even further, especially if that decision is appealed to the State Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Eugenia Woo worries that the UW’s heavy-handed action to sue over the nuclear reactor will act as a deterrent to other nascent preservation efforts.

“I think the concern is that when we submitted the nomination [to the City of Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board], it was a perfectly legal action provided for by the Landmark Ordinance,” Woo said. “Does [the potential of being sued] scare people off from submitting more nominations?”

“That’s why this whole lawsuit, the appeal, is so important,” Woo said. “It’s really about the future.”

Feliks Banel is a faculty member of the University of Washington Department of Communication; he also works under contract as a producer/reporter for the City of Seattle’s Seattle Channel.

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