In a unanimous decision by the state’s highest court, the University of Washington lost its bid to declare itself free of Seattle’s landmarks-preservation law.

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The University of Washington has lost its bid to declare itself free of Seattle’s landmarks-preservation law.

In a unanimous decision released Thursday, justices on the state Supreme Court sided with the city, which argued that the university is not immune from the city’s landmarks law.

 

Though the legal challenge stemmed from a debate over the fate of an architecturally unusual building that once housed a nuclear reactor, the outcome has significance beyond that dispute, according to Roger Wynne, an assistant city attorney.

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“What this means more broadly is that all state universities are now on notice that they can’t take a pass on local development regulations,” Wynne said.

“That’s important because universities have properties in the hearts of local communities that are stitched into the fabric of those communities. It would be problematic if they could simply decide not to comply.”

It’s unlikely the university will be penalized for demolishing More Hall Annex this past year.

In a statement, a university spokesman described Thursday’s decision as helpful in clearing up a long-running disagreement.

“The university and city agreed at the start of this process that we needed clarity, that agreeing to disagree had become too cumbersome,” Victor Balta said.

“The Court’s decision provides additional clarity. We look forward to continuing to work with our city partners for the good of the physical campus legacy we pass on to future generations.”

Eugenia Woo, director of preservation services for Historic Seattle, said preservationists are elated with the ruling, even though the reactor building is gone.

“In preservation advocacy, you’ve got to have thick skin. You get over it,” Woo said. “This was about the long game — about historic resources in general.”

The university razed the reactor building on its Seattle campus in 2016 to make way for a computer-science center — despite it having been nominated to receive city-landmark status and having been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

More Hall Annex was constructed in 1961. The reactor was shut down in 1981 and the university’s nuclear-engineering program ended in 1986, leaving the building vacant and unused.

Preservationists nominated it for city-landmark status in 2015.

While the building had its detractors — architecture critic Larry Cheek told The Seattle Times in 2015 that such midcentury modern buildings should be saved only to “remind us how bad they were” — preservationists argued the gray, concrete structure had significance as an example of Brutalist architecture.

Along with the city, the preservationists said the building’s nomination meant it should have been protected under the city’s landmarks-preservation ordinance.

But the university declared itself in control of its own campus and not subject to a local ordinance like Seattle’s.

Last year, a King County Superior Court judge sided with the university, saying it wasn’t a property “owner,” as defined by Seattle’s ordinance. The ordinance defines an owner as a “person.”

The judge also said university campuses must be developed to meet the state’s growing and changing educational needs.

The preservationists and Seattle appealed the case — and it went to the state Supreme Court.

Though a 1909 state statute once gave the university full control of its campus, the Legislature in 1985 added the phrase “except as otherwise provided by law,” Justice Mary Yu noted in the Thursday decision supported by the court’s eight other justices.

And while the city’s ordinance defines an owner as a person, it defines a person as “an individual, partnership, corporation, group or association,” Yu wrote, identifying the university as a corporation.

Because the university’s regents “enjoyed over a century of plenary authority over UW property,” the justice wrote, “It is understandable that UW is resistant to changing that structure.”

Yu added, “It is also understandable that UW takes offense at any suggestion that it does not sufficiently value its own historical resources.

“However, it is up to the Legislature, not UW, to grant, expand, restrict or rescind the regents’ authority.”

The city issued the university a permit to demolish More Hall this past year because the King County Superior Court ruling was in place at the time. Neither the city nor the preservationists sought to block the demolition by requesting that ruling be stayed.

“I don’t anticipate any follow-on litigation related to the nuclear-reactor building,” Wynne said.

Preservationists are eyeing various buildings still standing on the university’s campus and may seek landmark status for them to protect them in case the university decides to demolish them, Woo said.

Though the court rejected most of the university’s arguments, it declined to rule on the merits of one. The contention that Seattle’s ordinance wasn’t properly adopted in compliance with the state Growth Management Act is something that must be first, if at all, addressed by the Growth Management Hearing Board, Yu wrote.