A developer recalls an effort three decades ago to bring the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to the Lake Union steam plant.

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Sometimes, a great vision just needs a little patience.

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s lease of the historic Lake Union steam plant was the culmination of a project real estate developer William Justen began three decades ago.

In the late 1980s, Justen was assembling a group of South Lake Union properties for a mixed-use development. At the same time, the Hutch was looking to move to larger quarters from its original home on First Hill, and was nearing a deal for space in Fremont.

Justen convinced the Hutch’s leadership to look at South Lake Union, and — long story short — they bit. The 39 parcels Justen assembled represented the largest private assemblage in the city to date, he said.

Seattle’s then-Mayor Charlie Royer, for whom Justen had worked previously as head of the city’s Department of Construction and Land Use, asked Justen whether the Hutch would be interested in the Seattle City Light steam plant, built in 1914 and decommissioned and abandoned in 1987.

At the time, about 1989, the plant – “an eyesore of broken windows” in Justen’s recollection — was deemed too far away from the center of the Hutch’s planned campus.

Royer still wanted to get rid of it. Justen arranged a land swap in 1990 that helped expand South Lake Union Park and landed the plant in the hands of Justen’s then-employer, the Koll Company, to redevelop as a 109-unit condominium.

Permits were in hand and pre-sales going well – including one to then-Hutch director Robert Day, for whom the main Hutch campus is named — when financing for the project fell through in the wake of the savings and loan crisis.

In a last-ditch effort to salvage the project, Justen convinced the leaders of biotech company ZymoGenetics, quickly outgrowing its University District space, to take a look at the steam plant as a possible new home. Having familiarized himself with laboratory floor plans through his work with the Hutch, Justen, working with architecture firm ZGF, mocked up a layout for the plant. The dimensions matched to within one foot.

“It was like you could just plop an ideal Fred Hutch floor plate into the steam plant,” Justen said. “It was pretty remarkable.”

Zymo’s then-parent company, Danish drug giant Novo Nordisk, happened to be holding a board meeting in Seattle a month later. The Novo board took a short boat ride from Chandler’s Cove to approach the plant from the water, its dramatic wall of windows, broken though they may have been, no doubt gleaming on what Justen recalls as “a beautiful sunny July day.”

The board was convinced and agreed to finance the $25 million conversion of the steam plant to a biotech lab – which Zymo’s then-chief executive Bruce Carter called “the mother of all fixer-uppers” — using corporate financing and bank debt.

With the building’s laboratory infrastructure already in place, the Hutch today sees the steam plant as an efficient way to add space for some 200 employees, who are expected to begin moving in to the 106,000-square-foot building next fall.

For Justen, principal of his own real estate development firm since 1995, the Hutch’s move is a pleasing outcome to a real estate adventure. “It just took them 30 years to get there,” he said.