Update (July 19, 2016): The University of Washington demolished the Nuclear Reactor Building on July 19. We'll be posting more details and images soon.
The National Register-listed Nuclear Reactor Building isn't looking too good these days. The University of Washington (UW) erected a chain link fence around the site in May to prepare for demolition. On June 20, the University began deconstructing the building—WITHOUT a demolition permit. The UW submitted a demolition application in early May but evidently just could not wait to start destroying this significant structure.
Complaints were filed and the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections issued a stop work order and notice of violation. The UW claimed that it was abating the lead in the caulking of the windows (original character-defining features). We do not doubt there will be hazardous materials abatement that will need to be performed in preparation for the demolition, but the building has sat vacant for years and posed no threat. Windows on the two primary facades were removed, leaving massive openings into the building. It took the University almost a week to board up the openings, a requirement of the City.
What's Really Going On?
Save the Reactor has been monitoring the process and has been communicating with the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) about the process and code requirements for the University’s demolition application and master use permit application for the new construction. What we discovered was a failure in the City’s own system of review including not following its own Land Use Code correctly. Here’s what we heard from a senior level planner when asked to explain its process and code requirements: "It is certainly true that SDCI has not always correctly applied the Land Use Code Section I cited in my earlier email to you. With this current demolition project we have had the chance to carefully examine how the code applies. I can only reconfirm we are confident the exercise of our substantive SEPA authority in a case like this (another agency has completed procedural SEPA and the application to us does not include a Land Use Code - identified Type II MUP) is not a decision subject to public notice or appeal to the Hearing Examiner. Even though this departs from our practice in the past, we feel we have no option but to proceed in a code compliant way.”
We are not making this up. We asked SDCI if it has a complete accounting of every case in which the Land Use Code section has been incorrectly applied. We are waiting for a response. We believe citizens of Seattle expect the City to correctly apply its own codes.
Adding to the confusion is we believe SDCI may have directed the University to place a large white notice of proposed land use action sign last week but that will be taken down soon as well because evidently that was also a mistake. Essentially, the City is not requiring the University of Washington to post public notice of the proposed new construction project, demolition of the Nuclear Reactor Building, and removal of at least 44 trees. No public comment will be taken.
While the City may be following the Land Use Code, it doesn’t mean it makes any sense or should not be reformed.
It’s always been clear that the University wanted to scrape the Nuclear Reactor Building site for its new CSEII project and all the information in the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) supports that conclusion and not the other alternatives. Yes, the University did everything it needed to do to comply with SEPA but it’s more about checking boxes than an objective review of alternatives that are feasible.
There were many comments submitted for the draft SEIS (including those from Historic Seattle, Docomomo WEWA and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation), but like any EIS process the comments were just noted or we got referred to a page in the SEIS that the lead agency (UW) felt it had adequately addressed the issue.
As of today (July 8, 2016), review of the demolition permit application is completed, so we assume the demolition permit has been issued or will be issued any day now and the University will begin destruction of the historic structure soon.
How Did We Get Here?
After the disappointing Superior Court decision was issued in favor of the University (because of a ridiculous technicality), Save the Reactor reviewed options. We encouraged the City of Seattle to appeal the decision to the State Court of Appeals and asked the City to seek a stay of demolition. The City chose to appeal but did not seek a stay. We assume this was for political reasons mostly. And the City is more focused on the larger jurisdictional issues of City and University. But for Save the Reactor and other supporters, this advocacy has been about BOTH the Nuclear Reactor Building and the larger issues. We joined the City of Seattle in its appeal to the State Court of Appeals. We also looked into seeking a stay of demolition but after much discussion with our attorney, we decided not to pursue a stay because of the possibility of having to post an appeal bond backed up by collateral. Docomomo WEWA has no real property to use as collateral but Historic Seattle and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation both own significant historic properties. If the stay was granted and we lose the appeal, then we could be liable to the University who could claim damages from delay of demolition and construction of its new project. This is a risk that Save the Reactor could not take. The UW has an annual operating budget of almost $6 billion. Save the Reactor has a combined operating budget of less than $3.5 million. We're somewhat outmatched when it comes to resources.
As a public institution the University of Washington needs to be a good neighbor within the city. For years, we have maintained that there are alternatives to demolishing the National Register-listed Nuclear Reactor Building and there is at least one alternative site for its proposed Computer Science and Engineering II building. Of course, this case is not just about the Nuclear Reactor Building. There are broader implications and impacts related to the entire campus and to any property the University owns. The University need not be so afraid of external efforts to recognize and honor its history and legacy. We have always advocated for a creative design solution that presents a win-win for the UW and advocates, but this position has been consistently ignored by the University.
We anticipate going before the State Court of Appeals this fall, with a decision in early 2017. The University's plans are to demolish the Nuclear Reactor Building after completing SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) mitigation and obtaining a demolition permit. The UW's self-imposed "mitigation" for demolition is documenting the exterior to HABS Level 1 standards and producing a 3-D virtual tour of the interior. That's it. In our view, there's no mitigation for demolition because once a resource is destroyed, it's gone forever. The University intends to clear the site—the building and over forty trees—as soon as possible. We do know the University would like to start construction in January 2017 if it obtains the required permits in time for that start date. We do know there is no administrative appeal to the City Hearing Examiner for the demolition permit and master use permit, but the City's decisions on whether to grant or deny the permits can be appealed to King County Superior Court through a land use petition. All three Save the Reactor organizations have standing in this case and can appeal.