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For almost 50 years, the private park that is now Talaris Conference Center was an informal urban oasis for Seattle’s Laurelhurst neighborhood.

Its modernist landscape was planned in the mid-1960s by the same man who designed Gas Works and Victor Steinbrueck parks, Richard Haag. He transformed the swamp where his children used to chase frogs into a bowl-shaped park with a man-made pond, fountain and flora influenced by Japanese style.

The public was allowed to stroll freely through the site, even though it was privately owned with buildings that housed nonprofit research groups such as the Battelle Memorial Institute and Talaris Research Institute.

“It was open to anyone,” said Haag, who at 89 still designs landscapes in his Capitol Hill office.

Now Laurelhurst residents have been fenced out of the property and are lobbying to have the entire 18-acre site designated a landmark to preserve as much of it as possible while the property owners consider development options for it.

Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board unanimously approved a nomination for landmark designation last week, and the site’s owner, 4000 Property LLC, has been temporarily blocked from moving forward with plans to build at least 80 single-family homes

But the owner says that especially since the Talaris Research Institute assets were sold in 2012, it has needed a viable financial solution to maintain the property.

The owner has subsidized the property for several years, says George Thurtle, the company’s spokesman. “That is ending,” he said.

In 2012, representatives of the owners presented the neighborhood with two options: One could be done under current zoning laws, and the other, lower-impact plan would require rezoning for apartment buildings.

With current zoning, the company could completely take over the site with more than 80 single-family homes.

They offered that plan for shock and awe,” said Haag, who has supported Laurelhurst residents’ efforts to designate the site as a landmark. “I think developers often do that — they develop a plan for the most intense use as a scare tactic.”

Thurtle says developing the site for single-family homes was proposed because it’s one of the only legal ways to eventually make a profit off the property.

“The site costs hundreds of thousands each year just to maintain, and ownership needs to see an exit strategy,” Thurtle said.

The other plan allowed for preservation of some of the buildings and landscape, and informal public usage, if the neighborhood supported a plan to rezone for apartments. A maximum of 350 units would be built in two- to four-story buildings that would have taken up less than 2 acres, said Thurtle.

Many Laurelhurst residents and a grass-roots group called Friends of Battelle/Talaris
instead focused on a landmark designation.

After the city rejected 4000 Property LLC’s request for rezoning, the option for partial preservation of the site was not possible, according to Thurtle.

“Significant time and money was spent developing a preservation oriented land use concept and business model,” a statement from the company said. “That proposal was rejected by the Laurelhurst Community Club who lobbied Council to reject it.”

Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board may decide Nov. 6 to approve the landmark designation for the entire site, blocking development for even longer, but not permanently. The property company can still negotiate with the board for other ways to preserve parts of the property while allowing the owners a reasonable way to manage the site financially.

Thurtle sounded optimistic about that potential process.

“Uses need to be allowed that support and pay for the site,” said Thurtle. “The preservation community understands that, and it’s also written into the Seattle Municipal Code, which requires an owner be given reasonable economic use.”

The board can approve changes to the property that include development. Laurelhurst residents such as Jeff Davies, a real-estate agent who has meditated and exercised in the park for years, hope that process preserves most of the site’s aesthetics.

Davies, who lives next to Talaris, called the site a model of Northwest architecture and one of the first examples of integrating buildings with natural surroundings.

“It’s held up so well,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that a historic resource could be lost.”

Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or