Within eyesight of drivers on I-5 in Federal Way, Washington, a celebrated exemplar of modernist landscape architecture and building design peeks out from a forest of evergreens. Like a skyscraper turned on its side, the building appears to be a low concrete bridge stretching across the landscape. The long horizontal tiers of its five floors are draped in ivy and overlook a pond and a meadow. It’s surrounded by lush gardens of wildflowers, and threaded through with walking trails that disappear into the maples and pine trees beyond
This verdant tableau could soon be joined by 1.5 million square feet of industrial buildings, serviced by upwards of 800 trucks a day. It’s a proposition that’s spurred a campaign of opposition from some of the biggest names in landscape architecture, including the project’s original designer.
The site, about 25 miles south of Seattle, is the former corporate headquarters of the Weyerhaeuser timber company, a project built in the early 1970s that paved the way for environmentally conscious building in the corporate realm. The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), a nonprofit focused on the stewardship of landscape heritage, has deemed the campus a nationally significant space worthy of being recognized as a National Historic Landmark.
The organization has also labeled the site at risk of being irreparably damaged by the proposed warehouse development, and began collecting letters opposing the development, written to local and federal officials by prominent scholars and designers, including Peter Walker, the landscape architect of the campus who more recently did the landscape design for the 9/11 Memorial. “No other project in modern environmental design has achieved such a high level of integrated building and biological setting,” Walker writes in his letter.
A precursor to the sustainability-focused offices and campuses of the likes of Google and Unilever, the Weyerhaeuser campus was designed to connect with the landscape as a reflection of the company’s approach to forestry. Completed in 1972, the 425-acre campus was designed by Walker, founding principal of the landscape architecture firm Sasaki, Walker and Associates, and architect Edward Charles Bassett, partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. TCLF president and CEO Charles Birnbaum says it was the first large scale ecologically driven campus design that aimed to “lay lightly” on the land.
“One of the things that’s really important here is it’s not just the fact that these are performing woodlands and that this is a performative landscape that is alive and dynamic, but it is also about the way in which the landscape is being used and the public is being invited in,” says Birnbaum.
The park-like setting and 12 miles of trails made the campus feel like part of the community. So when the property was sold in 2016, many worried about the development plans of the new owner, the California-based developer Industrial Realty Group. A community group formed to get involved in the public planning and approvals process for the historical site, which also includes a bonsai museum and rhododendron garden.
“For over 40 years the property has been enjoyed by the public from all over. They come and walk their dogs,” says Lori Sechrist, a resident of Federal Way and president of Save Weyerhaeuser Campus. “These trails throughout will be disrupted. They’ll go away.”
For the past four years, Sechrist and her group have been attending public meetings about the proposed warehouse development on the site, including reviews of the campus’s historic significance and the impact the project could have on the site’s wetlands. She says the goal isn’t to stop development, but to reduce its footprint and visual impact. “We’ve never advocated against development,” Sechrist says. “We continue to try to stress reasonable, responsible development. We know the size of those buildings overall are just too large.”
The five buildings being proposed would be about 40 feet tall, with a cumulative footprint that could lead to hundreds of trucks driving in and out of the campus daily. Sechrist says the traffic impact will likely lead to road widening, which will then cut down the forest buffer that would otherwise reduce the visual impact of these new buildings. The developer rejects that assertion, noting that the development plan is within traffic limits allowed by both the City of Federal Way and the Washington Department of Transportation, and that the tree buffer will not be reduced.
Sechrist’s group has been calling on the developer to reduce the size of the buildings, as well as the total area of the planned warehouses, which currently have no named tenant. They’ve successfully waged appeals of some parts of the review and approvals process, subjecting the project to tighter scrutiny on mitigating environmental and traffic impacts, but the project appears to be moving ahead.
Dana Ostenson, executive vice president at Industrial Realty Group, says the impact to the site is being overstated, and that the company has plans to preserve its open space, as well as the ivy-covered horizontal building at its center. Ostenson claimed that 11 miles of trails would remain open for public use and that the company planned to develop only 21% of the campus, “unless we continue to be held up in the appeal process.” Ostenson says preservation of the historic headquarters building would be impossible without additional development on the site, and that the project will create a significant amount of jobs both during construction and after.
Though the company has pledged to preserve the historic building and landscapes of the campus, both Save Weyerhaeuser Campus and TCLF argue that what’s planned goes too far. Part of the original campus plan included areas set aside for potential future development. Some of Industrial Realty Group’s proposed warehouses sit within those zones, but others stretch far outside them. “To pretend that they aren’t going to be visible from multiple vantage points both inside and from the interstate, we’re not convinced,” says Birnbaum.
But the project may be going forward nonetheless. The first warehouse has received environmental and land use approvals from the city, and is now awaiting its building permit. Sechrist says reviews from state historic resources officials are ongoing, and that her group has been in a back-and-forth with the developer about altering the proposed development to reduce its impact. These so-called mitigation efforts are still pending, but Sechrist is hoping they can come to a compromise on the size of the warehouses and the amount of forest buffer that can exist between them and the rest of the campus. The next meeting will take place on Friday. More concessions may be possible through this process, but Sechrist concedes that some development is coming to the site regardless.
For now, the future of the campus is undecided. Birnbaum and TCLF keep encouraging those concerned to send letters to officials in Federal Way. He says his organization is not opposed to development on the site, but just wants its historic character and importance to be as protected as possible. “This is an icon,” he says. “And the reality is that it is worthy of a higher level of thoughtfulness and creativity than it’s currently being afforded.”