The wrongheaded decision to shutter and sell Seattle’s National Archives facility loomed ominously throughout 2020. Recently, the obscure federal agency that made this bad call worsened it by declaring it would move the transaction expected in mid-2021 to within weeks. 

This trove of Pacific Northwest history — a million boxes of tribal treaty drafts, World War II incarceration records and much more — must not be shuttled away to Missouri and southern California. Courts and the incoming presidential administration should halt this potential disaster for academics, genealogists, historians and other researchers. It is not only bad cultural stewardship to move regional history great distances away. It is also bad governance. 

Any sale of the Archives building and its 10 acres of Sand Point real estate must follow a transparent examination. The sale and likely redevelopment would alter that neighborhood forever. Dispersing the archival records would end University of Washington researchers’ convenient access to records two miles from the heart of the Seattle campus. 

Where the archive sits matters. Its trove of federal, territorial and other records remains largely paper. As the facility director put it, “probably .001%” of those documents are digitized. Moving them ought to be a sensitive and transparent decision.

Instead, the little-noticed Public Buildings Reform Board, based in Washington, D.C., quietly cooked up the sale proposal that shocked historians back in January. Now the five-member board has hastened the deal, originally planned for mid-2021. A broker contract is expected this month to bundle the Sand Point site with 11 other federal properties across the country — including 129 acres of Auburn warehouses — for purchase in spring 2021 or before. 

This outrage must not stand. Northwestern history must not be spirited away so mega-developers can grab a nationwide “high-value asset portfolio,” as described by board member D. Talmage Hocker, a Kentucky real estate developer, in the PBRB’s October meeting. Seattle’s National Archives brings value to this region’s history and culture far more significant than dollar figures can show.


“It is tone deaf as to what these archives are actually about,” U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, who inserted accountability for the sale into the House-passed appropriations bill, told the editorial board.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson has sued challenging the process and said more litigation is coming. Leaders must also prepare in case this rotten deal happens. One reasonable possibility is keeping some regional records in Washington, on undeveloped Port of Olympia land near the planned new state library-archives building in Tumwater. Jayapal and Secretary of State Kim Wyman have wisely opened discussion of this possibility with tribes, historians and other stakeholders to explore — transparently — how to help this complicated situation.

National Archives-held records cannot be transferred to the state. Further, the state’s holdings won’t leave much spare room in the planned 145,000-square-foot, $108 million state library-archives building. The Seattle national facility occupies more than 202,000 square feet. Even if Congress approves a new national archive site, Tumwater is not as central for as many people as Seattle. A new building would also be many times more expensive than the $2.5 million maintenance backlog on the existing one.

But it could keep Pacific Northwest records in the region. In a year of unprecedented crises, this sale is a stark example of an unforced error. Every solution, from reversal to mitigation, must be explored.