Tucked into a bucolic, natural, and roughly 400-acre setting in Federal Way sits a building like few others.
From the north, it is fronted by a man-made pond and a 40-acre, ochre- and olive-colored meadow that, during warmer temperatures, is striped with vibrant spikes of purple and pink lupine. From the south, thick forest stands of Evergreen trees border the edges of a flat and felted 20-acre lawn that reaches right up to the building’s facade.
Famously described as a “groundscraper” — or a “skyscraper on its side” — this five-story rectangular structure appears built into the earth. Its sloped, tiered, and ivy-draped terraces evoke images of ancient ruins once occupied by the Incan Empire.
The building blends so well with its natural surroundings, you wouldn’t be faulted if you failed to notice it while driving past on Interstate 5 or State Route 18.
That’s all by design, according to the building’s architect, the late Edward Charles Bassett. When describing his goal for the structure’s plan, Bassett once remarked, “I wanted to find a point where the landscaping and the building simply could not be separated, that they were each a creature of the other and so dependent that they could hardly have survived alone.”
For nearly a half-century, one tenant occupied the building’s 355,000 square feet — Weyerhaeuser Company, the legacy Pacific Northwest timber business founded in 1900.
While the exterior is singular and impressive, its interior is equally remarkable — and was very much ahead of its time, when several thousand company employees occupied its floors between 1971, when the building was constructed, and 2016, when the company relocated to Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood.
Both the architects and Weyerhaeuser Company embraced the once-emerging concept of an open floor plan design — a concept most tech startups and co-working companies take for granted today and one that also is touted as a newer concept. Office walls and partitions were scrapped in favor of open floors, and company departments were neither bounded nor demarcated. Large floor plates, 10-foot ceilings, and diagonally placed columns aimed to capture natural daylight and unimpeded views of the surrounding landscape.
Three years have passed since any employee has occupied space in this building. At one point, 6,500 Weyerhaeuser Company employees worked in Federal Way — roughly half located at the famed headquarters building on the east side of I-5, and the other half located in offices on the west side of I-5.
By 2015, however, the building was too big for the remaining 700 employees headquartered in it, according to a Weyerhaeuser Company spokesperson, and the company wanted to be closer to Seattle’s hub of employment talent.
In February 2016, California-based Industrial Realty Group (IRG) acquired the campus — including the former Weyerhaeuser Company headquarters building; the Technology Center and Lab building; acres of open space; the man-made pond; 12 miles of trails; a section of North Lake waterfront; and the Pacific Bonsai Museum and Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden, which are open to the public — for approximately $74 million.
Originally rebranded as The Greenline, IRG now refers to the iconic building and its surrounding campus as Woodbridge Corporate Park. Still, locals of any lasting tenure refer to it as the old Weyerhaeuser campus.
“This was George Weyerhaeuser’s office,” IRG Executive Vice President Dana Ostenson explained during a tour of the eerily vacant building. Ostenson, standing at the west end of the building’s fifth floor, was referring to the family heir who worked at the company for a half-century and served as its CEO for 25 years. True to the building’s open floor design standards, Weyerhaeuser didn’t have an actual office per se. But Ostenson pointed to relics of executive perks. “He had his own outdoor garden. He had his own fireplace. He had his own kitchen.”
According to Ostenson, the space will be occupied again, perhaps by one of the 250 local, national, and international companies to which IRG has marketed the building. But that can only happen if IRG can move forward on its plan to activate the building and its surrounding property into Woodbridge Corporate Park.
When fully built out and completed, the park will include five industrial buildings constructed on now-forested property that, combined, would offer more than 1.5 million square feet of warehouse, manufacturing, and office space, according to IRG’s project documents. The buildings would be permitted and constructed individually and in phases, with the first building proposed to be four to five stories tall, offer 225,950 square feet, and include 287 parking stalls.
These new buildings would complement the existing 455,717-square-foot Technology Center and Lab building, which is currently 72 percent leased by International Paper Company, which employs about 120 people at that location, and a small staff of remaining Weyerhaeuser Company employees. Another 100,000 square feet is available for laboratory use, according to Ostenson, and IRG is currently speaking to biotech companies about leasing the remaining lab space.
Woodbridge Corporate Park also includes the crown jewel — Weyerhaeuser Company’s former headquarters building, which Ostenson said could be leased by a single tenant or split up among as many as four tenants.
But before that can happen, Ostenson said IRG needs to build those industrial buildings so it can lease space to tenants and generate revenue to maintain and even upgrade the old headquarters building for future tenants. The task has proved difficult in the three-plus years since the company acquired the property, as IRG faces opposition from Save Weyerhaeuser Campus (SWC), a nonprofit organization with a different vision for the property.
“The irony of this beautiful building is that it’s something that has to get subsidized by the other industrial and manufacturing and office (spaces) we build,” Ostenson explained. “It is a concomitant part of what we are doing in other parts of the campus.”
WOODBRIDGE CORPORATE PARK SITE PLANS
When fully built out and completed, Woodbridge Corporate Park will include five new industrial buildings constructed on now-forested property that, combined, would offer more than 1.5 million square feet of manufacturing, office, and warehouse space. That’s in addition to the existing Technology Center and Lab, as well as the former Weyerhaeuser Company headquarters, which has been vacant since 2016. In total, the park would offer 2.3 million square feet of commercial space — large enough to accommodate a few thousand employees.
To be clear, both sides have distinctly different views of how the campus should be developed. Both parties want to see the property developed responsibly — which can mean one thing to IRG, and another thing to SWC.
According to IRG, Woodbridge Corporate Park would return jobs and tax revenue to Federal Way, two things lost when Weyerhaeuser Company moved north.
The company points to a consultant’s report released in April that shows the undeveloped and sparsely occupied campus as it exists today still generates $1.7 million in annual property tax revenue to the City of Federal Way, while a fully operational Woodbridge Corporate Park would employ 3,100 people and generate approximately $6.8 million in annual tax revenue to the city — money that could be used to fund essential services, such as libraries, police and fire departments, and public schools.
Additionally, the project’s economic benefits would be felt even before development of Woodbridge Corporate Park is completed, according to IRG and the consultant’s report. Woodbridge Corporate Park’s construction is expected to cost $236 million and take three years to complete, creating 780 jobs, according to the report. That construction activity would generate for the City of Federal Way $3 million in local sales and use taxes, $2.1 million in property taxes, and $4 million in traffic-impact fees for city use outside of the campus.
Beyond the financial aspects, IRG notes much of the campus’ natural amenities — open fields and trails, the pond and the North Lake waterfront and boat launch, the Bonsai Museum, and the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden — would remain open to the public and any future tenants.
Similarly, according to IRG, approximately 70 percent of the entire campus would remain undeveloped. The five proposed industrial buildings would be placed behind a forest buffer and, according to IRG, largely out of view — whether traveling on I-5; SR-18; or the campus’ main arterial road, Weyerhaeuser Way.
In March, the Greater Federal Way Chamber of Commerce voiced its support for the project’s development. In its symbolic action, the Chamber pointed to the project’s potential to diversify the existing business base, expand opportunities for living-wage jobs, and preserve the unique natural space.
In August, the president of the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden Foundation, Sean Rafferty, offered full support for the plan.
According to IRG, others have lined up to support the project, such as the Washington State Department of Commerce, the Federal Way Police Officers Guild, and Greater Seattle Partners.
“There’s a lot of community leadership — from the government to the private sector — that has come out for us in support of the project,” Ostenson said. “I think they have realized the project we have is really sort of the only way to both preserve the campus and create a tax base
Meanwhile, members of SWC take issue with the size, scale, and scope of Woodbridge Corporate Park.
“We don’t own the property; they do,” said Lori Sechrist, the organization’s president, during a meeting at a coffee shop near the campus. “But they’ve got to develop it responsibly.”
According to Sechrist, SWC has 11 community board members and the support of the Rainier Audubon, South King County Sierra Club, Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, The Cultural Landscape Foundation, and even some former Weyerhaeuser executives, among others.
The organization’s chief concern is anticipated traffic associated with the construction of five industrial buildings.
Sechrist, who has lived near the campus for 15 years, said her group’s members want IRG to develop something that isn’t dependent on semi-truck traffic.
At public meetings and during our interview, she cited project documents, prepared by IRG and submitted to the City of Federal Way, that include traffic-impact analyses completed between 2016 and 2018, and that show the first industrial buildings would generate an influx of approximately 200 semi-trucks traveling in and out of the campus each weekday. If IRG were to build all five industrial buildings, an influx of approximately 800 semi-trucks would move in and out of the campus each weekday, according to the analyses.
IRG argues several points in response — the truck traffic estimates are just that, estimates, and do not represent actual trips that will be taken; small and large trucks are included in the traffic mix, not just semi-trucks; and much of the truck traffic will occur during non-peak hours, among other points.
When asked how SWC would like to see the campus developed, Sechrist said, “We’d like to see IRG bring a dynamic mix of uses to the campus that will benefit everyone in the community. These would include things like market-rate or upscale housing, senior housing, medical facilities, high-tech, education, offices, and retail. Creating a place where people can live, work, learn, and play.”
IRG’s Ostenson said a mixed-use development plan “doesn’t work economically” and that it “fails for all sorts
“If you put anything else besides industrial buildings on this site, you would have to cut down the trees so you could see them,” he explained. “Apartments and retail and office need visibility. Industrial doesn’t. That’s why it works so well.”
Incidentally, SWC has raised more than $4 million from the Washington State Legislature, City of Federal Way, and King County toward an effort to purchase and conserve 54 acres of shoreline waterfront along the North Lake’s western edge. It’s an area where buildings aren’t slated for construction, according to current site plans. However, whether IRG has any interest in selling this property is unclear.
Of all the documents Sechrist shared during our interview, she pointed to one letter that resonated for her. It was written by George H. Weyerhaeuser, the former company CEO, now 93 years old — the same George Weyerhaeuser who occupied that top-floor space with the fireplace, private kitchen, and outdoor private garden all those years ago.
“In developing the property for Weyerhaeuser’s world headquarters in the late 1960s, I never imagined it would be used for industrial development or large warehouses,” Weyerhaeuser wrote in the letter, which was dated Aug. 1, 2019, and addressed to Federal Way’s hearing examiner. “It’s important to consider that major developments will alter things permanently. When the change involves a unique asset, you must carefully weigh whether economic progress is worth what will be lost.”
In October 2018, the City of Federal Way completed a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) analysis, an environmental review required by the Washington State Department of Ecology, that tipped in IRG’s favor. SWC has appealed this decision.
In February, the City of Federal Way approved a permit to construct the first building — the 45-foot-tall, 225,950-square-foot industrial building that would include 287 parking stalls.
Again, SWC appealed this decision. Federal Way’s hearing examiner held three-day public hearings on the appeals — one in June, another in August. A decision from the hearing examiner could be issued as early as this month.
What happens if the hearing examiner rules in IRG’s favor? Will SWC end its opposition?
“No,” Sechrist replied. “Then we go to the superior court. We feel that strong.”
Would IRG ever back out of its development plan and put the property back on the market? “Never, ever, ever,” said Ostenson. “The investment is too big. We would never abandon this project, ever. It wouldn’t matter how long it took.”
Meanwhile, three years have passed since IRG acquired the property, and the Weyerhaeuser Company’s former headquarters building, and much of the campus on which it sits, still remains idle.