Corporate Tax

A battle to avoid wasting a corporate campus intertwined with nature

There are often protests against proposals to demolish or even change historical buildings. Landscaping threats typically receive far less attention.

This is changing, however, in a suburb of Seattle, where a developer is planning to build on the company campus that George H. Weyerhaeuser created for his family’s wood and wood products company from the late 1960s.

The site, which the city of Federal Way annexed in 1994, has been lauded over the years for its pioneering interweaving of buildings and landscape. Today it is embroiled in controversy over plans to build massive warehouses that opponents say would upset the balance with nature, but the new owner of the property says they are necessary for the main building restoration and the maintenance of the site .

In the decades following World War II, businesses left crowded cities to erect jeweled buildings on pristine lawns throughout the suburbs. But Mr. Weyerhaeuser, the president and managing director of his company, wanted his headquarters to blend in with nature rather than stand out.

Designed by architect Edward Charles Bassett and landscape architect Peter Walker, the campus featured a low building in a meadow between wooded hills. Ivy-covered terraces at the front of the building tumbled down to a lake and walkways wound through trees. The public was allowed to enter the campus, which became a popular place for hang gliding, dog walking, and bird watching.

It is a time of change in the post-war suburban corporate headquarters such as the Weyerhaeuser campus. Before the pandemic, many properties were sold and, in some cases, reinvented for new uses, often because the original owners pulled up their stakes and returned to the cities – places more attractive to the young, talented workers they wanted to attract. The cost of maintaining large sites was another factor. Still, the vast majority of office space in the US remains in suburbs.

The pandemic has not hit the suburban office market as hard as it has in urban areas, said Ian Anderson, senior director of research and analysis at CBRE, a real estate services company. However, the success of remote working has challenged the need for large central offices, where employees congregate on a daily basis.

In the midst of the upheaval, preservationists, historians and others sound the alarm about threats to pioneering company premises. And the cases raise questions about how changes on these websites can be handled sensitively and who is responsible for maintaining them.

In other places, the websites have weakened when the companies who started them went out of business or merged with others.

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

However, the remodeling of Bell Labs, which were overseen by Somerset Development, included the sacrifice of more than 200 acres of campus. Somerset sold the land to home builder Toll Brothers, who built townhouses and mansions.

“In the maintenance, we attract the buildings,” said Liz Waytkus, managing director of Docomomo US, which focuses on modern design. “The landscapes are harder to represent, even though the public is more connected to them.”

That was clear when PepsiCo closed the sculpture garden on its Purchase, NY campus. The garden, with works of art by Alexander Calder and Alberto Giacometti, had attracted more than 100,000 visitors annually, but was closed in 2012 due to a 1967 renovation of the buildings. After the renovation, PepsiCo did not reopen the garden immediately, citing safety concerns that led to an outcry. The company eventually let the public in again, but only to a limited extent.

The Weyerhaeuser campus, opened in 1971, was one of the first large suburban corporate headquarters on the west coast. Over time, the company added features to the site: a rhododendron garden and bonsai museum on the south end, a technical center on the north.

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

Industrial Realty wants to make a good investment. It sold some lots, renamed the campus Woodbridge Corporate Park, and marketed the five-story main building – an early example of an open workspace and as innovative inside as it was outside – to potential office tenants.

However, Industrial Realty quickly met resistance with a plan to set up a fish factory in a wooded area near headquarters. Local residents packed meetings, and eventually the deal went wrong.

However, Industrial Realty has received approval for a 226,000 square foot warehouse on the site. And now the company is proposing to build another warehouse next to it and three more buildings near the technical center – plans that “transform a historic, iconic property into an industrial area,” said Lori Sechrist, president of the nonprofit group Save Weyerhaeuser Campus .

The advocacy group went to court to try to stop the initial development citing concerns about environmental damage, traffic and damage to the historic site. One of the financial contributors to Save Weyerhaeuser is Mr. Weyerhaeuser, who is no longer involved in the company.

“Penny-ante proposals,” said the 94-year-old Weyerhaeuser about the planned building.

However, Dana A. Ostenson, Executive Vice President at Industrial Realty, countered that the development plans were responsible. “We are interested in preserving the campus and, above all, in creating a campus that will support the main building,” he said. The new buildings, Mr. Ostenson added, would have buffers of trees.

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

State and national organizations, together with Save Weyerhaeuser Industrial Realty, have asked to minimize its footprint. The Cultural Landscape Foundation, an education and interest group, launched a letter campaign that evoked passionate requests. The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation has nominated the campus for the National Trust’s annual List of Endangered Places.

Some of the buildings are designated for wetlands, which requires a review by the Army Corps of Engineers. And since the campus is eligible for inclusion on the national register of historic sites, heritage protection officials are participating in the review to find ways to avoid or minimize “adverse effects”.

The Puyallup tribe, on whose home land the campus is located and whose reservation is nearby, also oversees the process. The Puyallup have concerns about the impact on the environment and cultural resources, said Michael Thompson, a tribe spokesman.

Industrial Realty is moving forward and plans to build the buildings to order, Ostenson said. The company is talking to biotech and other companies about leasing, but it hasn’t ruled out the buildings becoming distribution centers.

Regardless of the ultimate uses, opponents believe the new development would simply get too big a bite out of the storied terrain.

Mr. Walker, the landscape architect, designed other significant commissions such as the 9/11 Memorial in New York. At 88, he’s one of those who urged Industrial Realty to build as part of an early Weyerhaeuser development master plan that describes the campus as an “endangered species”.

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