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Bill Virgin: From elegant Weyerhaeuser HQ to a seafood nexus?

Weyerhaeuser’s soon-to-be former headquarters in Federal Way as seen in 2013.
Weyerhaeuser’s soon-to-be former headquarters in Federal Way as seen in 2013. Staff file, 2013

Deciding how other people ought to spend their money or what they ought to do with their property is a parlor game people have played since way back when houses actually had parlors.

Ever since Weyerhaeuser announced plans to sell and leave its Federal Way headquarters campus for an office building in Pioneer Square, people have been conjecturing what future owners could or should do with the property.

Leave it as is. Redevelop the surrounding forests and meadows for a planned, mixed-use community. Find another corporate tenant. Use it for a college campus.

The property was sold for $70.5 million to a Los Angeles company specializing in large-scale projects. That served only to fuel speculation and unsolicited advice on the fate of the building and the land, once Weyerhaeuser moves out in mid-September.

Now the development company has unveiled its first proposed use of the Weyerhaeuser campus, through permit applications filed with the city and reported by the Federal Way Mirror.

And that project is … a seafood distribution warehouse.

Well that’s … different, and frankly a bit uninspired. If it was on anyone’s list as a preferred tenant for the property, it couldn’t have ranked very high, compared with some of the ideas floated.

A light-industrial building also seems an odd choice for the setting, considering that the property around the building doesn’t resemble areas like the Tideflats or the Kent Valley. Instead, it’s an area of sedate low-rise office complexes set in the woods.

That was Weyerhaeuser’s original and deliberate intent. Yes, it was the headquarters of one of America’s biggest manufacturing companies, but Weyerhaeuser didn’t mill a single board-foot of lumber there. The headquarters building and surrounding landscape were designed to send a message that this was a company about trees.

From a practical standpoint, the Weyerhaeuser property doesn’t appear to be an obvious choice for a proposed warehouse for Renton-based Orca Bay Seafoods. It’s not on the water, where processing vessels might land. Highway access is OK, with state Route 18 providing access to Interstate 5 and the Valley Freeway, but the street system in that immediate area is designed more for getting workers in cars to those office buildings, not for warehouse/distribution truck traffic. Have fun negotiating a large truck through those traffic circles.

But the project has the attributes of fitting in with current land-use rules and with bringing in jobs and tax revenues for Federal Way, which has seen its economic base hacked away by Weyerhaeuser’s downsizing and eventual departure. That it’s real and legal is going to make it attractive to the city, never mind Industrial Realty Group, which shelled out real money for the property. A customer with money in hand and a specific plan in mind is usually preferable to everyone else’s wishes and dreams backed by not so much as pocket lint.

Still, the proposal does raise the pesky question of what’s next for the Weyerhaeuser property and whether this project is indicative of the direction of development. The warehouse is to be built on land adjacent to the headquarters building. That building has some wonderful bucolic views but a massive amount of floor space and a location out of favor with leasing offices these days. Maybe a new tenant won’t want to be next door to a warehouse or have sweeping views of a light-industrial park; maybe it won’t matter because there’s no one to lease that building.

Finding new uses for older properties is tough. The Port of Tacoma, still feeling scorched over the methanol plant fight, can attest to that.

From here in the grandstands, the seafood warehouse and distribution center looks like a better fit for the Tideflats or Frederickson, and the port might just have a parcel or two available. But we’re not the ones with money on the table, and it could be that the Federal Way property is such a screaming deal that development there makes terrific sense for all concerned.

No doubt lots of backseat developers and economic planners will bemoan the plans for the Weyerhaeuser property as not measuring up to their grand visions. For them the challenge is to come up with not just something better but someone who can make it reality — and pay to make that happen.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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