Uncertain future for Weyerhaeuser site

By Michael Simpson - Staff Reporter



Neighbors of the former Weyerhaeuser headquarters are fighting a seafood factory that wants to move in next door.

The 425-acre park-like campus has been open to public use since the 1970s and is larger than Dash Point State Park.

Its 109 acres are being sold off in three pieces.

Orca Bay Seafoods plans to move into a seven-acre, 72-foot tall structure and parking lot within a 19-acre forest that backdrops the main Weyerhaeuser building.

They will not be taking over the old Weyerhaeuser facility.

It will house their corporate headquarters, food processing center, cold storage facility, parking lot and distribution hub.

The space will also be rented to area food companies as a cold storage facility and distribution hub for their products.

Save Weyerhaeuser Campus, a group of 460 neighboring homeowners and activists from South King County, said they oppose the development on environmental and safety concerns.

They say they want "high quality" jobs, like tech and research and development, similar to what the former occupant provided, not industrial jobs, which may come with noise, pollution and trucks.

Earlier this year, Weyerhaeuser, a wood products company and one of the largest owners of timberlands in the world, moved its headquarters to Pioneer Square in Seattle.

According to Weyerhaeuser, they hope to tap into young professionals who want to live and work downtown.

They sold the property to Industrial Realty Group, LLC, a firm specializing in developing and managing real estate earlier this year.

IRG says they are going through all environmental checklists before selling plots and have more in common with their opponents than they think.

They renamed the property the Greenline.

The campus was built in 1971, and celebrated for its hanging gardens style concrete modernist buildings, planted with low-lying plants that blend the five level structure with its surroundings.

Federal Way annexed the campus into its city limits in 1994.

The two signed a concomitant agreement, which required Weyerhaeuser to only build low-density structures, while preserving the open landscaping.

Together, Federal Way and IRG can change the agreements through amendments, according to a Federal Way request for information letter sent in October.

Lori Sechrist, president of Save Weyerhaeuser Campus, said Orca Bay would set the tone for future development in Federal Way.

"We've gotta stop that first one," Sechrist said.  "Because if the first one comes in, then it sets precedent."

Lawyers, foresters and civil engineers from the group drafted a comment letter to Federal Way.

"I think that surprised the city," Sechrist said.

The group showed up to a Federal Way City Council study session on the IRG proposal, and discussed effects of delivery trucks, destruction of urban forest, building height and potential ammonia leaks, on the nearby community until late into the night, she said.

"There's churches, there's schools. It's just unacceptable," Sechrist said.

The property is zoned CP1 and OPI.

This is not industrial zoning and Orca Bay Seafood is, Sechrist said.

In order for Orca Bay Seafoods to qualify, they would need a CE zone, which doesn't exist in Federal Way, Sechrist said.

"With the concomitant agreement, there's very specific rules and laws of what can really be built in that area and it is not an industrial zone," Sechrist said. "A fish processing plant clearly is industrial."

"Even as an accessory use, food processing is not allowed," she said.

"It could very well be a warehouse, but it needs to be in the content of the zoning agreement that is unique for the property," Sechrist said.

Save Weyerhaeuser Campus wants "high-quality jobs," such as tech, research and development, "not warehouses, which have few jobs and lots of trucks," according to a Save Weyerhaeuser Campus spokesman.

Weyerhaeuser made $7.1 billion in net sales in 2015, according to their 2015 U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission annual report.

Information technology positions within the company paid upwards of $100,000 in the Federal Way campus.

Orca Bay Seafoods is a $160 million food processing and distribution company of 200 employees in blue-collar and white-collar capacities, according to Orca Bay Seafoods.

Food processors on the factory floor tend to make minimum wage, an anonymous employee said.

They did not respond to requests for salary levels within the company.

Dave McGee, Orca Bay Seafoods the chief finance officer, said the move would be an exciting opportunity for his company to expand production capabilities.

He said Orca Bay Seafoods would sponsor youth activities and support the Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce.

"We want to immerse ourselves in the community," McGee said.

Sechrist said Federal Way City Council members frequently thank her and the Save Weyerhaeuser group for voicing their concerns.

Many City Council members declined to comment on the Orca Bay Seafood development.

Councilmember Susan Honda said her experience is different because her husband worked for Weyerhaeuser for 38 years.

"We were pretty relieved that they weren't leaving the state," she said.

She wants the main building to be rented before more buildings are built and opposes the Orca Bay Seafoods move, she said.

"I don't think it belongs there," Honda said.

Councilmember Martin Moore said he wants to see "healthy growth" and shares the traffic concerns of many Federal Way citizens.

"We have a community of people that are rightfully concerned," Moore said.

The Federal Way City Council can advocate and push IRG to make decisions about the property, but at the end of the day, they are free to do what they want within the limits of the law.

"We're working with them in a fair capacity," Moore said.

IRG says they want what's best for Federal Way.

Tom Messmer is the vice president of special projects for IRG, responsible for due diligence on purchases of new properties.  

He is the public face for the development and has been attending Federal Way City Council meetings every other Tuesday night to talk about the project.

"I'm trying to do the right thing and bring the city jobs and tax base," Messmer said.

The people who oppose the development want zero development, and while IRG will redevelop the wooded flanks of the property, the picturesque core around Northlake will remain the same, Messmer said.

IRG has no plans to disturb the popular bonsai and botanical gardens on the property, Messmer said.

"We're not proposing to cut down one tree on the lakefront," Messmer said.  "Our visions aren't that different."

He said IRG is required by law to build to the 2016 King County stormwater standards, and to complete required air quality, noise and transportation studies.

"It's zoned for industrial; we still have to comply with everything," Messmer said. "Traffic, noise, air quality, trips, height regulations, coverage requirements, stormwater, I mean, all of it.

"You can't pull a fast one on the city," Messmer said.

The entire property is valued at $110 million, he said.

Because of the high cost to build a cold storage facility, the building that Orca Bay Seafoods would occupy will be valued at $55 million and support 300 jobs, he said.

"That'll be the second most valuable building in Federal Way and the second biggest taxpayer in Federal Way after the Weyerhaeuser property," Messmer said.  "It'll contribute more money to schools than virtually any building in Federal Way."

Approximately $450,000 would go to schools, $65,000 to fire, $35,000 to libraries and $65,000 would go to the city for services such as police officers, Messmer said.

In contrast, a regular warehouse that Save Weyerhaeuser Campus said they would prefer over Orca Bay Seafoods would pay $50,000 to schools and provide 40 jobs, Messmer said.

The main Weyerhaeuser building sits empty and IRG is attempting to get large corporate tenants from Asia, the Northwest, or technology companies from the Bay Area to fill the space and the additional two plots that are for sale, he said.

"We're trying as hard as we can to get these people and if we don't get them we'll get the next best thing and the next best thing may only be a warehouse.  I don't know," Messmer said.

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