Battelle/Talaris: Saving Seattle’s Newest Modern Landmark

By Eugenia Woo

Prompted by concerns for proposed future redevelopment plans for the former Battelle Memorial Institute Seattle Research Center (now Talaris Conference Center, 4000 NE 41st St) in Seattle’s Laurelhurst neighborhood, the Friends of Battelle/Talaris (FOBT), a grassroots community group, formed in early 2012 to advocate for the property's preservation and to produce a landmark nomination report. The 18-acre property has been owned by 4000 Property LLC (a holding company for Bruce McCaw, Telecom multimillionaire) since 2000. The group submitted a landmark nomination to the Seattle Historic Preservation Program in spring 2013. In Seattle, owner consent is not required before a nomination is submitted. The property was designated a landmark by the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board in a unanimous vote on November 6, 2013.
 
 
Image (above): Contemporary view of the Battelle/Talaris campus. Credit: Eugenia Woo.
 

The property has also been determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places by the State Architectural Historian at the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation.

For the past two years, Historic Seattle has been providing technical assistance and advice on the landmark nomination preparation, research and preservation advocacy strategy for FOBT. The Battelle Memorial Institute/Talaris was included in the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2013 Most Endangered Properties List and also included in The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s “Landslide” at-risk properties for 2013. Docomomo US/WEWA has engaged in communicating advocacy efforts for Battelle/Talaris to its constituents.
 
Image (right): Contemporary view of the Battelle/Talaris campus. Credit: Eugenia Woo.
 
Why is the Battelle Memorial Institute Property Significant?
 
The former Battelle campus is unique and significant because it represents an outstanding example of Northwest Modernist landscape and architecture integrally designed, master planned and constructed in two phases in 1965-67 and 1970-1971. The property embodies the distinctive visible characteristics of Northwest Modernism. Originally designed by landscape architecture firm Rich Haag Associates and architecture firm NBBJ, the site benefited from a collaborative effort by two of the most prominent and well-respected firms in Seattle and the nation. It is an outstanding example of the work of these two firms.
 

Images (right): Historic views and drawings of the Battelle Memorial Institute Seattle Research Center. Magazine source unknown. Date: Ca. 1967. Credit: Collection of Eugenia Woo.
 
As the only research campus of its type in Seattle at the time, it is associated in a significant way with a significant aspect (science and technology) of the cultural and economic heritage of the city. The Battelle campus was master planned, designed and built to provide a place to sponsor educational seminars, conferences, and workshops and to serve as an advanced study center for science and technology.
 
Because of its prominence of spatial location, contrast of siting, and scale, it is an easily identifiable visual feature of Laurelhurst and contributes to the distinctive quality and identity of the neighborhood. The site, landscape and buildings also retain a remarkably high level of integrity.
 

What’s the Preservation Threat?
 
In November 2013, property owner 4000 Property LLC filed a proposed land use application to subdivide the 18-acre parcel (the entire site is a landmark) into 82 parcels and 7 tracts of land for single-family development. The underlying zoning is single-family but there is an overlay zone for “an institute of advanced study” that was created in the 1960s to allow Battelle to develop the site for its campus and operate as a research institute. In addition, an agreement on the use and development of the property between Battelle and the Laurelhurst Community Club (LCC), also directs what happens on the site. This agreement runs with the land so any subsequent owner after Battelle is bound by the agreement. The LCC is a formidable neighborhood organization established in 1920 “to foster the improvement and beautification of the Laurelhurst neighborhood.” The LCC supports the underlying single-family zone and wants to preserve open space and possibly limited, new development. The LCC also supported the landmark designation.     
 
Ownership’s proposal would destroy the historic landscape, site features and buildings. The Director of Department of Planning and Development has already made a determination that the proposal may result in significant adverse impacts, thus requiring preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). DPD has identified “Historic Preservation” as an element of the environment for discussion in the EIS. Preservation advocates do not support the current proposed land use action to subdivide the property into 82 lots because it will effectively obliterate a unique historic site, one of the most architecturally significant landscapes in Seattle. Preservation groups have provided public comment to DPD, requesting the inclusion of at least one preservation alternative in the EIS that meets the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.
 
Image (right): Site plan for Battelle/Talaris. Credit: Friends of Battelle/Talaris.
 
In the City of Seattle, after a property is designated a landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Board, the City and property owner usually negotiate a controls and incentives agreement. As described by the Seattle Historic Preservation Program, “Controls define those features of the landmark to be preserved and outline the Certificate of Approval process for changes for those features. Incentives may include, but are not limited to, zoning variances, building code exceptions, and financial incentives.” However, in this case, negotiations are on hold until the property owner works out issues related to land use and zoning.
 
Is there a Path to Preservation?
 
FOBT and local preservation organizations have been meeting with and are in regular communication with the owner’s representatives regarding proposed plans for the property. They have also been meeting with leadership from the Laurelhurst Community Club. In these meetings, preservationists seek a “win-win” solution that would allow for an economically viable project; compatible new infill construction that is well-designed and respects the character of the original landscape and buildings; and a project that preserves most of the buildings, site features and landscape. Preservation advocates also support uses and zoning that would allow for flexible development and preserve the original design integrity and intent. There may be a solution aided by the landmark designation which not only protects a historic property (through a controls and incentives agreement between the City and property owner— yet to be negotiated in this case) but may also provided building and zoning code relief and financial incentives.     
 
Image (above): Contemporary view of the Battelle/Talaris campus. Credit: Eugenia Woo.
 
At the time of this writing, the issues are unresolved as the various parties work through the process. Preservation advocates remain hopeful for a preservation path as they move forward and continue their dialogue with the owner and neighborhood groups. Preservation advocacy is most effective at the local level, particularly when it involves community advocates who have a passion for heritage and preservation.
 

Eugenia Woo is co-founder of Docomomo  US/WEWA and current Board member. She is the Director of Preservation Services at Historic Seattle. 

 

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