The University of Washington has won a case over whether it has the right to tear down a historic building that once housed a nuclear reactor on campus.
Because the University of Washington is an educational institution, it does not have to follow Seattle’s landmarks-preservation ordinance, a Seattle judge ruled Thursday — a decision that removed one obstacle in the UW’s quest to tear down a building that once housed a nuclear reactor.
“The City asserts — and the court agrees — ‘that no state university is a legal island unto itself,’ ’’ King County Superior Court Judge Suzanne Parisien wrote in her decision. “Yet, there is no denying that universities are unique.”
The UW had sued the city of Seattle and a local preservation group after preservationists nominated More Hall Annex — a small, 55-year-old concrete building in the modern Brutalist style of architecture — for landmark status under the city’s ordinance. The UW wants to tear down the annex and build a computer-science center on the site.
Parisien wrote that “state universities are encumbered with a public purpose that is essential to the future of the State, and this public purpose requires that the campus continue to be developed to meet the growing and changing educational needs of the State.”
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Parisien also found that the preservation ordinance doesn’t apply to the UW because it is not a “person” or “owner,” as defined by the ordinance.
The city and preservationists could decide to appeal, and both are reviewing their options.
Preservationists said they were disappointed with the judge’s decision and, in a written statement, said they believed the ruling didn’t address all the substantive issues raised by the case.
The issue of whether the UW is an “owner” is a technicality, said the statement released by Historic Seattle, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation and Docomomo WEWA. “The University clearly owns the Seattle campus.”
The university is raising money to build a computer-science center on the site of More Hall Annex. The new center would be the second one on campus and, if constructed on the More Hall site, would be across the street from the existing Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering.
Preservationists have said that the UW has generally been a good steward of the oldest buildings on campus, but a dozen modernist-style buildings could be threatened if the university doesn’t have to follow the landmarks ordinance.
Those midcentury buildings are not as widely appreciated, yet they also tell the story of the university’s history, they say.
Many were designed by important Northwest architects and reflect the building materials and construction techniques that were common 50 or more years ago.
“As a public institution the University of Washington needs to be a good neighbor within the city,” the preservationists’ statement said, noting there’s at least one alternative site for the computer-science building. They also said the judge’s decision has “broader implications and impacts related to the entire campus and to any property the University owns.”
More Hall Annex was placed on the state and National Register of Historic Places in 2009. The UW used it for teaching and research for more than three decades, beginning in 1961.
University officials said they were pleased with the outcome.
“The UW has demonstrated its commitment over time to historic preservation, and we will continue to do so,” said Sally Clark, the UW’s director of regional and community relations and a former Seattle City Council member.
UW officials have said the nuclear-reactor building has no use, and they don’t think it has the same level of historical significance as some other buildings on campus.