Preservationists are concerned as federal officials seek public comment on the possibility of moving out of a historic building that is one of the few World War II-era buildings remaining on main roads in Oak Ridge—and possibly the only one left on Illinois Avenue.
The Atmospheric Turbulence and Diffusion Division, or ATDD, of the Air Resources Laboratory, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, is now at 456 South Illinois Avenue. It’s just north of Ole Ben Franklin Motors and across from new shopping centers on the other side of South Illinois Avenue.
During World War II, the single-story white building was an emergency hospital to serve federal plants. Oak Ridge was built in the mid-1940s, during the war, to help make the world’s first nuclear weapons as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project, and it enriched uranium for the first atomic bomb used in wartime.
After the war, the building, which is now owned by NOAA, was used as the city’s health department, said Mick Wiest of the Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association, or ORHPA.
Wiest said the building is well-maintained, and it’s received a historic preservation award from ORHPA.
But federal officials said this month that the ATDD needs more space. A notice published in the Federal Register on November 3 said the NOAA offices and laboratories in Oak Ridge could move to a larger, modern facility located in an “appropriate research setting.” But the possible new facility has not been identified.
ATDD now has four buildings that include a total of about 17,500 square feet of office and laboratory space, staging and assembly, and a machine shop, the notice said. The current space can house up to 36 staff members, including full-time employees, visiting scientists and students, and contract employees.
There are also six shipping and storage containers that are used to securely store field equipment and supplies, meteorological instruments, and power systems for remote climate stations.
“ATDD needs additional space to accommodate offices for staff expansion, visiting scientists and students, as well as space for additional lab work, engineering assembly, sensor calibration and testing, and sensor prototyping and evaluation,” the notice said.
Specifically, NOAA needs at least 12,500 more square feet, or a total of 30,000 square feet, to “effectively house personnel and equipment necessary to meet ATDD’s mission,” the notice said.
The need for shop, lab, and storage space for testing and evaluation of new sensor technologies will continue to grow, the notice said, and moderate growth in staffing is expected as the division accommodates emerging programs associated with water and drought planning, climate testbeds, and air-surface exchange research.
The notice said programs are often delayed by having to displace partially completed work from available space to complete a project, or repair a system with a more urgent timeline.
“The existing facility severely limits ATDD’s ability to implement a primary NOAA goal of working with private industry, universities, and national and international agencies to create and leverage partnerships for more effective research,” the notice said. “We frequently encounter such opportunities, but are limited when offering space to accommodate visitors to work with our existing staff.”
Federal officials emphasized that no decision has been made yet. The notice of intent to develop an environmental assessment for the possibility of moving ATDD to another facility gives the public 30 days to comment on its support of the proposal, the impact of the move, or on the new location, which has not yet been specified, said Monica Allen, public affairs director for NOAA Research.
“It does not imply nor endorse moving ATDD but solicits public input on this initial scoping of the possibility of moving,” Allen said. “One of the outcomes is certainly not moving from the current location.”
Bruce Baker, ATDD director, agreed.
The notice of intent is really just for “scoping,” Baker said.
“It gives the public an opportunity to respond,” he said. “By no means is it an instrument that says we’re absolutely moving.”
He said space is the primary issue.
If ATDD were to move, it would stay in the area, but it’s not clear if it would stay in Oak Ridge.
Baker said South Illinois Avenue has grown significantly in the last two years, and the NOAA property may be the only site that is not commercial now.
Wiest said the NOAA building is one of ORHPA’s favorite buildings. It still has the 1940s look with some interior modifications, he said. It could be used on tours, especially as part of the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park and to help tell the complete historical story, including the history of racial segregation.
ORHPA’s biggest concern is that the NOAA property will be “grabbed up” by a developer and demolished, and a new modern facility built there.
“It is a very rare building now that we have lost so many Oak Ridge buildings,” Wiest said.
A few of the other remaining historical buildings along Oak Ridge Turnpike and Illinois Avenue, the city’s two main roadways, include:
- The former Red Cross building on Oak Ridge Turnpike near Methodist Medical Center. It’s now owned by Vintage Development Corporation and available for lease. That building was used as the city’s housing office during World War II. Wiest said ORHPA hopes this building is not heavily modified, and exterior features and the chimney are preserved.
- The former Alexander Inn/Guest House hotel, which is now the Alexander Guest House assisted living center at Jackson Square.
- The Tunnell Building, which is still in use on Oak Ridge Turnpike, across from the former Red Cross building.
Those buildings have also received historic preservation awards.
Baker said the job of the ATDD is to understand how to best measure the environment in order to better understand weather, especially climate and severe weather. The ATDD maintains NOAA’s climate-observing network; measures temperature, humidity across the United States and Alaska; and conducts air-quality and outreach work.
See the Federal Register notice here. Written comments must be received by December 5.
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