A fight to save a corporate campus intimately linked to nature

Feb 12, 2021 Travel News

A fight to save a corporate campus intimately linked to nature

Protests often erupt over proposals to demolish or even modify historic buildings. Threats to landscaping generally receive much less attention.

But that changes in a Seattle suburb, where a developer plans to build on the corporate campus that George H. Weyerhaeuser set up for the family-owned forest and wood products business from the late 1960s.

The site, which the City of Federal Way annexed in 1994, has been praised over the years for its pioneering blend of building and landscape. Today he is caught up in a controversy over plans to build huge warehouses which opponents say would upset the balance with nature, but which the new owner of the property deems necessary to pay for the restoration of the building. headquarters and grounds maintenance.

In the decades following World War II, companies moved from crowded cities to erect jewelry box buildings on pristine strips of lawns all over the suburbs. But Mr. Weyerhaeuser, president and CEO of his company, wanted his headquarters to blend in with nature rather than stand out.

The campus, designed by architect Edward Charles Bassett and landscape architect Peter Walker, featured a low-rise building in a meadow among wooded hills. Ivy-covered terraces at the front of the building cascaded down to a lake, and walking trails meandered through the trees. Members of the public were allowed access to the campus, which has become a popular spot for kite flying, dog walking and bird watching.

It is a time of change at the headquarters of post-war suburbs like the Weyerhaeuser campus. Before the pandemic, many properties were already sold and in some cases reinvented for new uses, often because the original owners took shares and moved back to cities – places considered more attractive to young people. talented workers they hoped to attract. The cost of maintaining large campuses was another factor. Yet the vast majority of office space in the United States remains in the suburbs.

The pandemic has not hit the office market in the suburbs as hard as it has in urban areas, said Ian Anderson, senior director of research and analysis at CBRE, a real estate services company. But the success of remote working has challenged the need for large central offices where employees meet every day.

Amidst the upheaval, conservationists, historians and others are sounding the alarm bells about threats to historic corporate campuses. And the cases raise questions about how to sensitively manage change at these sites and who is responsible for their preservation.

Elsewhere, sites languished when the companies that created them went out of business or merged with others.

Bell Labs – a 1962 research facility also designed by Saarinen on an oval campus in Holmdel, New Jersey – has been closed and headed for demolition. But former employees and others came together to save the two million square foot building. Now it’s a mixed-use project that functions like the city center.

But the conversion of Bell Labs, overseen by Somerset Development, involved the sacrifice of more than 200 acres of the campus. Somerset sold the land to home builder Toll Brothers, who erected townhouses and villas.

“For preservation, we gravitate towards buildings,” said Liz Waytkus, executive director of Docomomo US, which focuses on modern design. “The landscapes are more difficult to defend, even if the public is more connected to them.”

It was clear when PepsiCo closed the sculpture garden on its campus in Purchase, New York The garden, which houses works by Alexander Calder and Alberto Giacometti, had drawn more than 100,000 visitors a year, but it was closed in 2012 for a renovation of the buildings in 1967. After the renovation, PepsiCo did not immediately reopen the garden, citing safety concerns, which sparked an uproar. The company eventually let the public come back, but on a limited basis.

The Weyerhaeuser Campus, which opened in 1971, was one of the first large-scale suburban headquarters on the West Coast. Over time, the company added features to the site: a rhododendron garden and bonsai museum at the south end, a technical center at the north.

In 2016, the company moved to Seattle and sold the 425 acres for about $ 70 million to Industrial Realty Group, a Los Angeles-based company specializing in adaptive reuse projects.

Industrial Realty wants to make its investment. He sold land, renamed the Woodbridge Corporate Park campus, and marketed the five-story corporate headquarters building – an early example of an open-plan workplace and therefore equally innovative inside and out – to future office tenants. .

But Industrial Realty quickly sparked opposition with a plan to build a fish processing plant on a wooded plot near the headquarters. Local residents filled with meetings, and ultimately the case fell through.

Industrial Realty, however, obtained approval for a 226,000 square foot warehouse on the site. And now the company is proposing to build another warehouse next door and three more buildings near the technical center – plans that “would turn a historic and iconic property into an industrial area,” said Lori Sechrist, president of the non-profit group. lucrative Save Weyerhaeuser Campus.

The advocacy group has gone to court to try to stop the first development, citing concerns about environmental damage, traffic and damage to the historic site. Financial contributors to Save Weyerhaeuser include Mr. Weyerhaeuser, who is no longer involved in the business.

“Penny-ante proposals,” Mr. Weyerhaeuser, 94, said of the planned buildings.

But Dana A. Ostenson, an executive vice president at Industrial Realty, countered that development plans were responsible. “We are interested in preserving the campus and especially in creating a campus that will allow the support of the headquarters building,” he said. The new buildings, Mr Ostenson added, would have tree buffers.

Industrial Realty’s warehouses, which are said to bring jobs and tax revenue, also have supporters, including the local chamber of commerce.

State and national organizations have joined Save Weyerhaeuser in asking Industrial Realty to minimize its footprint. The Cultural Landscape Foundation, an education and advocacy group, launched a letter-writing campaign that drew passionate appeals. The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation nominated the campus for the National Trust’s annual list of endangered places.

Some of the buildings are proposed for wetlands, which prompted review by the Army Corps of Engineers. And since the campus is eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, preservation officials are participating in the review to help find ways to avoid or minimize “side effects.”

The Puyallup Tribe is also monitoring the process, on whose ancestral lands the campus is located and the reserve is nearby. The Puyallups are concerned about “environmental and cultural impacts on resources,” said Michael Thompson, a spokesperson for the tribe.

Industrial Realty is moving forward and plans to erect the buildings to specification, Ostenson said. The company is in discussions with biotech companies and other leasing companies, but it hasn’t ruled out buildings becoming distribution centers.

Regardless of the end uses, opponents believe the new development would simply take too big a bite out of the historic site.

Mr Walker, the landscape architect, designed other important commissions such as the 9/11 Memorial in New York. Now 88, he is among those who urged Industrial Realty to build as part of a first development master plan created for Weyerhaeuser, calling the campus an ‘endangered species’.