Preservation advocacy can be a long haul effort, and the fight to Save the Reactor is one of these efforts. In 2008, the University of Washington had plans to demolish the Nuclear Reactor Building that summer. Although there were no specific plans for the site at the time, it was (and remains) a desirable site for future development. Due to the economic recession, the UW did not proceed with demolition and redevelopment at that time.
Efforts to save the building from demolition in 2008 culminated in the nomination of the building to the Washington Heritage Register that same year and the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. Though younger than the minimum of 50 years that is generally required for listing, the Nuclear Reactor Building (constructed in 1961) was placed on the National Register of Historic Places because it demonstrated exceptional importance with its association with significant historic events, embodying the characteristics of the Modern Movement and representing the work of prominent Northwest architects. The building was also placed on the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation's 2008 Most Endangered Historic Properties List. The earlier advocacy efforts involved the Friends of the Nuclear Reactor Building (consisting mainly of University of Washington students), Docomomo WEWA, Historic Seattle and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.
In the Fall of 2014, the University unveiled plans to construct a new Computer Science and Engineering II Building on the site, which would require demolition of the Nuclear Reactor Building. It was clear to advocates that this meant the building was once again, threatened. On February 13, 2015, about 25 supporters of the preservation of the Nuclear Reactor Building gathered in front of the structure for a group photo holding homemade Valentines showing their love of the historic building. This "heart bomb" event brought together Docomomo WEWA, Historic Seattle, Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, students, faculty, staff and others. Because of the building's significance and the seriousness of the threat, the Nuclear Reactor Building has also been re-listed on the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation's 2015 Most Endangered List:
In fall of 2015, University officials released a Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the proposed new Computer Science and Engineering II building with a variety of alternatives. The preferred alternative called for the demolition of the Nuclear Reactor Building, with other alternatives involving a different site for the new building (just south of the University of Washington Club) and a plan to retain and build around the Nuclear Reactor Building. Our view was that the conceptual plans for the alternative to incorporate the Nuclear Reactor Building into the new design failed to adequately consider the historic character and significance of this National Register-listed building, and demolition should not be an option. Our three organizations submitted written comments and attended a public hearing to provided oral arguments. Most of the comments submitted by the public urged the University to not demolish the Nuclear Reactor Building. The final SEIS issued on January 20, 2016 was not much different than the draft version. Comments were minimally addressed as expected.
In response to plans by the University to demolish the building, Docomomo WEWA submitted a Seattle Landmark nomination application in December 2015. The UW promptly filed a lawsuit against the City of Seattle and Docomomo WEWA. Historic Seattle and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation joined the lawsuit as intervenors to support advocacy efforts. The UW maintained that as a state institution of higher learning, it was not subject to the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance. In April 2016, the King County Superior Court ruled in favor of the UW.
The City and the three preservation organizations appealed the trial court’s decision. The case skipped the State Court of Appeals because that court requested that the Supreme Court take the case to decide whether a public university is subject to a municipality's preservation ordinance. This is a rare request. Oral arguments took place on June 6, 2017 at the Temple of Justice in Olympia. You can watch the proceeding on TVW here (about 45 minutes). On July 20, 2017 the State Supreme Court issued its opinion, holding that the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Ordinance applies to property owned by the University of Washington. The Court ruled that the University of Washington is a state agency that must comply with local development regulations adopted pursuant to the Growth Management Act (GMA). The Court also held that the University is a property owner as defined by the LPO, overturning the trial court’s too narrow and technical decision that the UW is not an owner.
The Nuclear Reactor Building may be gone but it is not forgotten. The importance of the State Supreme Court’s opinion in this case cannot be overstated. It’s our understanding that all state agencies (including state universities) must comply with local development regulations adopted pursuant to GMA. This is HUGE. Read the entire opinion here and the article by the Seattle Times here.
Who We Are
The Save the Reactor campaign is a collaboration among three non-profit organizations advocating for the meaningful preservation of the Nuclear Reactor Building: Historic Seattle, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, and Docomomo WEWA. Click our logos below to learn more about each organization.