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Exclusive: New Seattle National Archives to be a ‘very large project’

May 29, 2024, 4:06 PM | Updated: May 30, 2024, 7:36 am

Image: The current Seattle branch of the National Archives will be replaced by a new facility at a ...

The current Seattle branch of the National Archives will be replaced by a new facility at a new location; $9 million in funding has been secured for planning and design, and that work gets underway later this year. (Photo: Feliks Banel, KIRO Newsradio)

(Photo: Feliks Banel, KIRO Newsradio)

As KIRO Newsradio reported in March, the federal government has secured funding and is taking initial steps to plan for a new facility to house the once-threatened Seattle branch of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). News of the potential for funding was first shared by KIRO Newsradio in October 2023 in an exclusive interview with Archivist of the United States, and head of NARA, Dr. Colleen Shogan.

Earlier this month, KIRO Newsradio spoke to a pair of federal officials directly involved for a preview of what’s to come in what will be a long process to develop and build the new facility. All of this new activity with an eye to the future is a radical departure from the roller-coaster ride for the National Archives in Seattle which stretched from January 2020 to April 2021, and which ultimately ended when the Office of Management and Budget formally withdrew plans to close the current Seattle facility and sell the real estate.

The $9 million in funding is for planning and design of a structure to replace the aging warehouse near Sand Point which NARA currently calls home for its collection of materials related to Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska. The building, which NARA has occupied since the early 1960s, dates back to World War II when it was created as a warehouse for the nearby U.S. Navy base at what’s now Magnuson Park in Seattle.

‘A very large project’

The current building needs some major repairs in order to protect the important and often priceless U.S. government documents, photos and maps dating as far back to the 19th century; a small portion of the $9 million will be used for the most urgent repairs at Sand Point.

It has not yet been determined what the total budget for the new NARA facility will be, but those funds will be significant, and will require separate Congressional approval. Also not determined yet is the timeline for when the new facility will open, but officials told KIRO Newsradio that a 7-to-10-year range is a good estimate.

A decade is a long time, even in the world of history and archives. However, because the threatened closure of the current Seattle facility in 2020 was so contentious and came completely out of the blue – courtesy of the obscure federal agency called the Public Buildings Reform Board – KIRO Newsradio reached out to the federal agencies directly involved to hear sooner rather than later about how plans will unfold, and how the public will be engaged in the process.

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The agencies involved include NARA, the federal administrators and archivists who run the current Seattle facility as well as a network of similar facilities around the United States, and major operations in Washington, D.C., and in nearby College Park, Maryland. Also taking part were officials from the General Services Administration (GSA) the federal agency that manages real estate, and builds and owns offices, warehouses, lighthouses, etc., for the U.S. government.

One way to look at the Seattle project is to think of GSA as the developer and future landlord, and the National Archives as the client and future tenant.

Deputy Archivist of the United States Jay Bosanko is one of the officials who sat down with KIRO Newsradio.

“This complete replacement is a very large project,” Bosanko said. “And yes, this is probably the largest and most visible project that we’re working with GSA on at this time.”

Bosanko didn’t say it in so many words, but likely because of what happened in Seattle a few years ago, NARA is already in discussion with stakeholders for the current and future facility, particularly the Indigenous tribes who were blindsided by the threatened closure.

“As you can imagine, there was a great deal of public interest and interest with all of our stakeholders that came out of all of the discussions previously about the condition of the building and its possible sale,” Bosanko said. “So, we’ve actually been receiving input for some time. And then, of course, we’ve been engaging with some tribal nations. I’ve met with representatives of tribal nations just within the last month, and that effort will only continue and grow as we move closer through this process.”

And “this process” also includes the General Services Administration (GSA), whose staff and contractors are responsible for property acquisition, and for design and construction of the new facility.

For the current Seattle NARA facility, Ryan Kennedy, the GSA’s regional chief architect, says the priority is fixing the leaky the roof.

“We do have a project in place,” Kennedy told KIRO Newsradio. “It is geared up to start this year. Specifically, we need to do repairs at the roof so that we can make sure that the building stays nice and dry.”

“So, that’s our highest priority at the moment,” Kennedy said, “to protect the existing facility.”

For creating the future facility, Kennedy says GSA has a process for “design excellence” which includes a focus on engaging stakeholders.

“So, really early on, we’re collecting from everybody ‘Who do we really want to hear from?,’ and it’s not going to be a closed circle, it’s going to be very open, because we know that this will be potentially a prominent legacy building here in the Seattle area,” Ryan Kennedy told KIRO Newsradio. “And we’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on that, so we’ll be developing that stakeholder analysis, and then an engagement plan.”

“And through the early phases of this work, once we’ve collected enough information to share,” Kennedy said, “presentations, potentially open houses, websites and other public-facing forums will come about that will give people information and also collect their input.”

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Key fact: New facility’s location has not yet been determined

One very important fact Kennedy shared: the location of this new facility has not yet been determined, and it won’t necessarily be located within Seattle city limits. This also means that the future of the Sand Point real estate where the current facility stands is also to be determined. There is sure to be an interesting formal process to figure out what will ultimately happen with that land, and plenty of informal interest from the city of Seattle and other interested parties. That, as they say, is a topic for another day.

Wherever the new facility is built, many have been wondering if it can be designed and built as something more like a “destination” – with an auditorium, special event spaces, exhibit areas – not unlike a museum which would attract visitors beyond those who wanted to do research or comb through the documents, photos and maps.

Is this approach a little too wacky for NARA?

“No, not wacky at all,” Bosanko said.

“We are very interested in being a vibrant and engaged part of the communities where our facilities are located,” Bosanko continued. “And we will be working with GSA to identify all the requirements, and obviously, that starts with the storage of the records.”

Along with a traditional research room where materials would be available to study, Bosanko says, “We want to have space where we can conduct public programs, where we can do outreach, and where we can emphasize the role we can play with educators, and especially in the K-12 space.”

“We are absolutely interested in being this active participant in the broader community,” Bosanko said.

One issue that came up in early 2020 when the materials held in Seattle were being threatened with removal to California and Missouri was the need to digitize more documents, photos and maps to, at that point, at least partially compensate for them leaving the region – that is, providing online access would make up for the materials no longer being held in Seattle. Then, just months later, the value of digitizing materials became even more obvious during the pandemic, when most archives were closed to in-person visits.

Material digitization is a priority

Regardless of what happened four years ago and regardless of how long it might take, digitization of materials is clearly a priority for NARA.

“Digitization is neither fast nor easy to do, it’s expensive,” Bosanko acknowledges. “And there are a lot of questions about how do we, given our massive volumes, increase our ability to do digitization.”

Bosanko calls digitization a “force multiplier” to extend the reach of the National Archives beyond each of their brick and mortar locations. He adds that an initiative already underway at their main branch in Maryland will inform design of the Seattle facility, and will, ideally, create what he hopes will be unique ways to engage the public, and to get the public’s help.

“We have just opened a brand new, state of the art digitization center at our facility in College Park, Maryland,” Bosanko said. “So there’s some opportunities for lessons learned there that we can then bring to all of our field sites,” he continued, by creating similar spaces where NARA could, for example, invite “a group of people in that have an interest in a particular body of records, and (work) with them to digitize those records.”

“That kind of flexible space is absolutely going to be important to us,” Bosanko said.

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What about the building’s exterior?

The inner workings of an archival facility are the heart and soul of the operation – the shelving, HVAC, fire suppression and other systems which protect the valuable contents. But what about the exterior? Must the new Seattle facility look like a big sterile suburban warehouse?

Or, is there potential for this new facility to be a visual landmark, perhaps some kind of inspiring structure that has elements of distinctive design, too?

“With all of my effort, it’s going to be a ‘yes’ to that” last question, Ryan Kennedy said.

In her role as regional chief architect for the Northwest/Arctic Region of GSA, Kennedy again cites the GSA concept of “design excellence.” This includes, Kennedy explains, a series of questions that get at the root of the many factors which influence those working to create a physical structure that represents and serves the needs of the client – in this case, the National Archives and Records Administration.

“What does a federal government building look like? How does it represent the community? How does it showcase innovation?” Kennedy said, reeling off some of the key questions. “How does it really look at future generations and its need?” she continued.

“A goal that we have is to make this building not only functional but resilient, and also just exemplify what NARA is,” Kennedy said. “We want to make sure that that is represented physically in the building as well as functionally in the building.”

And how soon might the public be invited to get involved in answering those questions and shaping the design of the project and, by extension, the future of the once-threatened Seattle branch of the National Archives?

“I’m probably going to over commit, but since I’m working with the project team, our goal is really to get something this year out there, whether it’s just a notification that things are happening,” Ryan Kennedy of GSA said. “But we are being aggressive with our work, we want to get started.”

“NARA has been interested for a long time,” Kennedy said. “And we want to support that.”

The same might be said of the Indigenous tribes, historians, museums, local archivists and amateur history researchers who are eager to be part of what comes next, and who want to do all they can to make sure the National Archives always have a home in the Pacific Northwest.

You can hear Feliks Banel every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien. Read more from Feliks here and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks. You can also follow Feliks on X.

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