You’re driving along Interstate 5 near Federal Way when a passenger in your car — not you, you’re supposed to be keeping your eyes on the road — spies a big, low-slung concrete-and-glass edifice, surrounded by forests, open fields and a few picturesque ponds.
“What’s that?” the passenger asks.
You explain that the building was once the headquarters of Weyerhaeuser Co., one of the founding legacy companies of this region. You go on to say Weyerhaeuser moved its headquarters to Seattle, and the current owners have not found new tenants or uses for the building or surrounding land.
Your passenger’s reaction is:
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■ “Gee, what a waste of a gorgeous property. And so much space. Aren’t people complaining all the time about how tight the office market is? Why isn’t there some other company that could move in, like a tech outfit?”
■ “Gee, what a waste of a gorgeous property. If no one wants it for offices, it would make a great facility for a college. Maybe some sort of training center, a business incubator or research facility or health-care site.”
■“Gee, what a waste of property. No one wants buildings like that or where it’s at anymore. Better to subdivide the property and put it to work providing jobs, homes and some tax revenue for local government. The building? Maybe you can use it for self-storage units.”
■ “What’s a Weyerhaeuser?”
Weyerhaeuser’s diminution from one of the dominant companies on the regional corporate landscape to not even an afterthought is a subject for another day, but the fate of its former Federal Way headquarters building is today’s topic since, after a relatively quiet hiatus, there are some stirrings and rumblings.
For starters, it’s not the former Weyerhaeuser property (except for those who remember it as such), it’s Woodbridge Corporate Park, the new name chosen by property developer Industrial Realty Group, which has owned it since 2016.
Along with the new name come a spiffy website and a marketing campaign to position plans for the property as balancing the natural setting with job-generating development. It doesn’t offer specifics on what uses the existing headquarters structure or planned light-industrial buildings might be put to.
More concretely, in figurative and literal terms, is news that the city of Federal Way has approved a land-use application for the first of the new buildings, a 45-foot-tall, 236,000-square-foot warehouse.
As is usually the case in stories like these, what we have is a collision of multiple interests and trends. The developer wants to earn money from the property. The city would like both tax revenue and jobs. Neighboring residents are unhappy about the loss of open space (and what is essentially a park for them) and a spike in truck traffic and noise.
The group Save Weyerhaeuser Campus has its own polished website to advocate for preserving the space; it plans to appeal the issuance of the land-use permit.
“We advocate a brighter future for this special property: A vibrant place with creative development that respects the environment and builds on the legacy of the property rather than tearing it down — a place where residents and visitors can live, work, learn and play,” according to the website.
But like IRG’s website, the group is stingy on details about how this suburban utopia might be achieved, or who might pay for it. The residents have made it clear what they don’t want, having chased away a proposed frozen-fish warehouse (which, to be honest, seemed like a better fit for the Tideflats or Frederickson anyway), and they’d probably be happiest if nothing happened there — which, absent a big corporation or institution willing to take the entire property on, isn’t likely.
Which brings us to the bigger problem.
IRG says its “core competency is retrofitting otherwise obsolete buildings, corporate campuses — such as the former Weyerhaeuser Campus in Federal Way — former military bases and industrial complexes.”
That campus may look to you and me like a perfectly serviceable, even pleasant, place to do business, within easy commuting distance of tens of thousands of potential employees. But that’s not the style they’re wearing these days. Weyerhaeuser, which needed less office space to reflect its downsized self, found that space in Pioneer Square, even though getting to Pioneer Square is getting to be an increasingly expensive, time-consuming pain.
Tech companies are busy seeing how many bodies they can shoehorn and crowbar into Seattle, cheek-by-jowl to all their competitors. Where once they put a premium on funky office spaces with exposed brick, duct work and old-growth wood beams (all the better to set off the foosball tables), today they’re quite content to jam into one more downtown office tower. Today the open-floor office plan (which the Weyerhaeuser building was actually a forerunner of) is the thing. Tomorrow?
Just because something makes sense doesn’t make it fashionable, or vice versa, as any parent watching their kids choose an apparel ensemble could tell you. That leaves all of the involved parties in the Battle of Woodbridge stuck in a stalemate, awaiting either a deep-pockets buyer with an affinity for once-cool architecture, or a dramatic change in office-space tastes and property-development strategies