Seattle developer Martin Selig has filed a plan for crowning downtown’s old Federal Reserve Building with a 31-story office tower.

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Local developer Martin Selig may have found a way to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

The legendary 78-year-old developer picked up the former Federal Reserve Building at 1015 Second Ave. for just $16 million in a government auction earlier this year.

The prime half-block property, once considered by Seattle Public Schools as a downtown school site, drew just eight bidders when auctioned by the federal government in February because the landmarked property would be costly to rehabilitate and can’t be demolished to clear the way for a new skyscraper.

Selig, who built the 76-story Columbia Center, the city’s tallest skyscraper, isn’t deterred. He has filed plans with the city to build a 31-story addition above the old building, separated from the bunkerlike 1950 structure by a 36-foot-tall plaza he calls a “winter garden.”

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“If we can build a 76-story one, this one will be easy,” Selig said in an interview Monday.

The entire 533,000-square-foot office tower will rise to a height of about 470 feet, Selig said. He hopes to start construction in the second quarter of next year.

The Cold War-era building has been vacant since 2008, when the Seattle branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco moved to a new Renton campus. A series of efforts to give the old building a new identity failed, culminating in its being put up for auction.

Selig, who declined to say how much his project could cost, has initial buy-in from state officials.

The building’s four-story exterior and main elevator lobby are landmarked. The two-story vault underground and teller lobby, which aren’t landmarked, also can’t be remodeled without state permission.

Greg Griffith, deputy state historic-preservation officer, said officials have “approved the concepts as meeting the spirit of the preservation covenant.”

But the state needs to review the details of how the building’s historically protected features would be taken apart and put back together before the alterations are approved, Griffith said.

Under Selig’s plan, the old building’s floors will be removed. Historical elements will be carted off to storage and put back in the building later.

Erik Mott, one of the architects at Perkins+Will working with Selig on the project, said a new foundation will be installed for a new superstructure that will support the office addition.

The old building’s exterior walls will be braced temporarily during construction, much as was done for the landmarked brick facade of the Troy Laundry building in South Lake Union, to accommodate a large office project now under construction.

Structural engineers at KPFF and contractor Lease Crutcher Lewis are part of the team that is working on a plan to preserve the downtown building’s exterior walls while constructing the new office tower, Selig said.

Once the structure is completed, the public will be able to enter the historic lobby, ride the landmarked elevators to the fifth floor and step out into a glass-encased lobby. Early renderings show visitors on a planted terrace.

Office tenants will step into new elevator banks to enter the 31-story addition, Selig said.

He said alteration of the building’s roof was allowed because it’s not deemed historic.

“You have to make sure that the historic building is what stands out, and you do not want to compete with it,” Selig said.

The developer said he has already leased 51,000 square feet of office space in the old building but wouldn’t identify the tenant.

The two stories below grade will be gutted. That space houses an enclosed pistol range, 23 parking spaces and a two-story vault that once stored piles of cash.

The pistol range is “full of lead,” Selig said, so it has been sealed off and will be cleaned up by crews removing asbestos from the building.

The huge doors to the vault “will become sculptures of some kind,” he said, perhaps outside the building on Second Avenue.

Besides the Federal Reserve Building project, Selig’s firm has five others that are already moving forward:

• Third & Harrison: The 185,087-square-foot building under construction in Lower Queen Anne will be the new headquarters for Holland America Line, a Seattle-based operator of cruise ships.

• Third & Battery: A three-story building under construction at 2400 Third Ave. Sound Community Bank has leased the first floor, and an undisclosed tenant has leased the second and most of the third floor, Selig said.

• Third & Lenora: A 31-story building at 2031 Third Ave. is going through the design review process. The building would have 150 apartments and 270,000 square feet of office space.

• 15th & Market: A six-story office building in Ballard. The project goes before a city design review board at the end of this month.

• 3031 Western: A 12-story apartment building with 100 units overlooking the Olympic Sculpture Park. The city has issued a master permit.