The Providence Heights campus just received a new lease on life — the Sammamish Heritage Society won its appeal of the demolition permit the city of Issaquah granted to property owner Plateau Campus, LLC, a subsidiary of The City Church of Kirkland.
After appeal hearings on July 10 and Aug. 8, Hearing Examiner Ted Hunter concluded on Sept. 7 that the Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance the city of Issaquah issued to The City Church in April will be vacated, and that the city must issue a new threshold determination after further review.
The Sammamish Heritage Society has been battling to save the former college for nuns, which was built by the Sisters of Providence in the 1960s, on account of its historic value representing women’s education. At a time when it was not as much of a social norm for women to have a higher education, the Catholic Church made the decision to give its female clerical members an equal education to that of their male counterparts.
The City Church wishes to tear down the buildings so that the property can be sold to the Issaquah School District for a new high school and elementary school.
Hunter stated in his conclusions that the city “did not adequately consider adverse impacts to a site designated as a landmark by the city of Issaquah Landmark Preservation Commission.”
An MDNS determines that the demolition of a structure will have no negative impact on the surrounding area; this includes not only ecological impacts, but also historical and cultural impacts as well.
Hunter pointed out in his findings that as the landmark designation occurred on July 27, two months after the MDNS was issued, “it could not have been considered at the time the threshold determination was issued.”
The document stated that Hunter therefore had reached the “definite and firm conclusion that a mistake has been committed, even if there was some supporting evidence for the MDNS.”
“We’re very pleased with the way it’s turned out … The MDNS was issued too quickly without the proper care and forethought,” stated Eirlys Vanderhoff, president of the Sammamish Heritage Society. “We know [the city] will have to think more carefully about the impact before they issue any more demolition permits.”
The campus chapel includes a set of 30-foot-high stained glass windows that were created by late, world-renowned artist Gabriel Loire specifically for the Sisters of Providence. Loire lived in Chartres, France, a city famous for its stained glass-filled cathedral, and he designed glass for prominent structures around the world, including the Salisbury Cathedral in England and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin.
The MDNS and demolition permit had included stipulations that the windows must be safely taken out and preserved before demolition. Representatives from Providence St. Joseph Health confirmed at the appeal hearing that they would love to take the 14 stained glass windows and display them in Providence hospitals throughout the region.
However, there has been some disagreement between experts as to whether the windows can safely be removed from the A-frame structure without the building collapsing.
Supporters of saving Providence Heights have advocated for the complex to be reused for another purpose, such as low-income housing (using the structure’s 200 dorm rooms) or a concert hall.
“We are all elated with hope and possibilities for repurposing the Providence Heights campus,” said Paula Harper-Christensen, a member of the Heritage Society. “It’s going to require some more fundraising, but it’s all worth the fight.”
Supporters have argued that the campus would make an ideal new high school, saying that it is already set up as a fully-functional school. At the appeal hearing on Aug. 11, Kathryn Rogers Merlino, associate professor of architecture at the University of Washington, said that reusing the campus would be much greener than demolishing it, pointing out that the energy released in demolition is equivalent to 5,000 cars being driven for one year.
The school district has expressed concern about the idea of educating public school children in clearly religious buildings.
After reading the hearing manager’s conclusions, Jake Kuper, the district’s chief of finance, stated in an email, “There has been a stay in the eminent domain action since earlier this year and … the District continues to search for school sites.”
Kuper said that he has searched the region continuously for sites that would be appropriate for the growing district’s badly-needed schools, but that due to the geography and high demand of the area, he has been unable to find many potential locations.
Keith Niven, director of economic development and development services for the city of Issaquah, stated that it was too early to comment, as it “will likely take us a week or so to fully understand the decision that was rendered.”
For Julie Koler, a former preservation consultant and former manager of the King County Preservation Program, the decision to throw out the MDNS represents a change in attitude for society.
“Our society in general just does not value historic preservation in the way it values the preservation of other things,” said Koler, who has been working closely with the heritage society on its appeal. Many members of the society testified at the landmark designation meeting that the United States and the West Coast in particular does not cherish its historic buildings the way that European countries do.
Now, Koler said, “Historic preservation is going to get its day in court. The jurisdiction is going to have to take it seriously for once and that is huge.”
She also pointed out that the effort to save the campus has been entirely a grassroots one, with a group of volunteers coming together and growing into a movement of hundreds or people from cities across the Eastside.
“This is the work of an awful lot of people,” Vanderhoff said.
Vanderhoff said that the all-volunteer Sammamish Heritage Society is in dire need of funds to cover its legal costs; the group has set up a GoFundMe page and will be continuing to host fundraising events.
The City Church did not respond to multiple requests for comment.