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Court settles dispute over UW building that has already been torn down

caption: A look inside More Hall Annex at the old nuclear reactor
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A look inside More Hall Annex at the old nuclear reactor
Courtesy of Washington Trust for Historic Preservation/Jennifer Mortensen

The Washington State Supreme Court has put an end to a decades-old debate between the University of Washington and the city of Seattle.

The court ruled Thursday that the UW has to abide by the city's landmark preservation laws.

The ruling came out of a dispute over whether the school had to preserve a campus building that once housed a nuclear reactor.

City officials say they’re pleased the issue has been settled and that the university will have to follow local development rules going forward.

“What this means is that we can continue to cooperate with the university, now with a better understanding of the ground rules that affect that relationship," said Roger Wynne, an assistant Seattle city attorney.

In their ruling, the court said:

“The [UW board of] Regents enjoyed over a century of plenary authority over UW property. It is understandable that UW is resistant to changing that structure. It is also understandable that UW takes offense at any suggestion that it does not sufficiently value its own historical resources. However, it is up to the legislature, not UW, to grant, expand, restrict, or rescind the Regents' authority.”

The University of Washington released this statement after the ruling:

“The University and City agreed at the start of this process that we needed clarity; that agreeing to disagree had become too cumbersome. We've worked together for decades for creative solutions that have benefited the University, city and the historic assets that make up UW's history. The Court's decision provides additional clarity. We look forward to continuing to work with our city partners for the good of the physical campus legacy we pass on to future generations.”

The case was prompted because the UW wanted to tear down More Hall Annex, which formerly housed a nuclear reactor, to build a new computer science and engineering building.

The city and preservation groups said the annex was protected as a potential landmark, but UW argued they have the power to decide what happens to the buildings on their campus and that the local preservation ordinance did not apply to them.

After an initial lower court ruling sided with UW, the school demolished the annex in 2016.

Following Thursday’s State Supreme Court ruling, assistant city attorney Roger Wynne said the city would not stop UW from building their new science space on the site.

Wynne said the university may have won the battle over the old nuclear reactor building, but “in doing so, I think, they’ve conceded the larger war over the question of application of our development regulations to the campus.”

UW recently released their final master plan for their campus.

Wynne said that draft held certain assumptions about development rules and, in light of this ruling, the city may need to re-visit those assumptions.

He said the ruling could have an impact on what the UW’s campus master plan looks like moving forward.

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