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Faced at times with regulatory concerns about how it houses its laboratory animals, the University of Washington is working on plans to build an underground facility for its mice, rats and primates.

The project is expected to allow the university to increase the number of animals it uses in research by as much as 50 percent for certain species and also resolve a longstanding concern about the animals being housed in crowded conditions.

But the cost of the project has skyrocketed by almost 50 percent from its initial projection earlier this year, to $123 million, or about $1,000 per square foot. Earlier this month, the high price caused the university’s governing board to pull approval of the proposal from its agenda. Administrators are now looking at ways to lower the cost of the building.

The plans call for a two-story building that would be built next to Foege Hall on Northeast Pacific Street, just east of where Pacific Street and 15th Avenue Northeast intersect. The site is now a grassy lawn where a cedar, steel and concrete sculpture called “Stronghold,” by sculptor Brian Tolle, was installed in 2007.

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The building would be entirely underground, and the area has such a low water table that most of it would be underwater. Eric Smith, director of major capital projects for the university, likened it to “building a bathtub,” and said the building must be heavy enough to counter hydrostatic forces or it would be pushed right out of the ground.

Another element that’s driving the expense: The interior is designed to be adaptable because the types of animals used in research, or the procedures used in experiments, often change over time.

“One of the challenges with animal research is that it’s very facilities-intensive; you need facilities that have specific characteristics,” said David Anderson, executive director of the university’s Health Sciences Administration. “You can’t just adapt an office building to do animal research.”

Originally the university had estimated the cost at $83 million, but after some planning was completed, the number came in much higher.

“This is not chump change; it’s $123 million, and we don’t have the metrics to justify the investment,” said UW Regent William Ayer during a subcommittee meeting in September. The item was later pulled from the meeting calendar.

Smith said the department is working on getting the cost down. “We’re confident we’ll be able to answer the questions raised,” he said.

If the building is approved, the UW would pay for construction costs through its internal-lending program, which allows the university to issue bonds and pay for them over time. The operating costs would be paid by researchers using the facility. No tuition money or state funding would be used to pay for construction.

Animals used in research are now housed in a variety of locations across campus. The new building would give the university a chance to bring almost all animal research under one roof and to use more animals, Anderson said.

He said the building would be underground because the university is running out of space to build aboveground. The grassy lawn between Foege and Hitchcock halls is a good location because it’s near health-sciences buildings, but the university has an agreement with the city of Seattle to preserve the view from Pacific Street to Portage Bay, so the building must be underground.

In 2006, the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care — an international regulatory agency that inspects laboratory facilities for animals used in research — put the UW on probation for a variety of deficiencies in the animal-research facilities. That organization lifted the probation in 2008, and the UW has been in compliance since that time.

Some animal-rights activists have long complained about the way the UW treats its laboratory animals. Michael Budkie, executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation NOW!, filed a complaint against the UW in June with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) — which regulates animal research — asking that the agency investigate a number of issues, including the deaths of nine primates that were in poor condition or emaciated when they died.

According to the UW, the USDA did not find any incidents of noncompliance, and closed the case.

The new building would allow the UW to increase the number of rodents it uses in research by 10 to 20 percent, and the number of rabbits, pigs and primates by 30 to 50 percent.

Anderson said about one-quarter of all research done at the university is tied to animal research in some way. Most of that research is funded by the National Institutes of Health.

But the UW also uses primates in instances where the research can only be done in more advanced species.

For example, he said, the UW has been studying a treatment for Meniere’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear that causes spontaneous episodes of vertigo. The UW uses primates because they have a cochlear anatomy similar to that of humans.

Some drugs also must also must be tested first in primates before the Food and Drug Administration will clear the way for them to be tested in humans.

“There is a certain part of the population that would prefer that animals are not used in any way,” Anderson said. “We recognize that … Unless we’re willing to significantly slow down the pace of scientific advances, animals are part of the portfolio now.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong.

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