A Downtown School Just Dropped in Seattle’s Lap

For free (maybe). Will the school district take it on?
This post is 6 in the series: Family-Friendly Cities

Andrea Miller’s third-grader has never been to school on May Day. She stays home each year, rather than risk the chance that her school bus will become hopelessly mired in the occasionally violent protests that engulf downtown Seattle streets.

Theoretically, it’s only an 8-minute drive between the Millers’ downtown Seattle apartment and John Hay Elementary, the public elementary school near the top of Queen Anne Hill to which (until recently) most children living downtown were assigned. But the family doesn’t own a car.

If the school calls because her daughter is sick or hurt, it can take anywhere from 30 to 50 minutes for Miller and her two younger children to find a Zipcar or get there on a bus. Her eldest spends an hour and a half on a school bus each day. And that won’t improve much when she starts this fall at Lowell Elementary, the Capitol Hill school to which many downtown families were recently reassigned because of overcrowding at John Hay.

Those tortured logistics are at odds with the very reasons many families live downtown—to shorten commutes, have everyone and everything close by, and actually see more of each other. As Miller put it:

You throw in homework, and family time is pretty much gone Monday through Thursday. It’s also harder for us as parents to be involved in the school.  You can’t say you’ll go volunteer for an hour because you know one hour will be three. I don’t know a lot of the other parents because I’m never on the playground after school, and you just really miss having that sense of community.

That could all change, given an insanely rare opportunity for Seattle Public Schools (SPS) to acquire a 100,000 square foot building in downtown Seattle—for free.

The Federal Reserve Bank Building

In early July, the school district pulled together a last-minute application to the federal government, which is disposing of the former Federal Reserve Bank Building at the corner of Spring Street and 2nd Avenue. The feds are willing to give it away to another agency that will use it for the public’s benefit for the next 30 years.

A coalition that serves Seattle’s homeless population got first crack at the building, based on federal law. But the federal government rejected their application in June, a matter that’s still in dispute and could wind up in court.

That decision, however, put SPS next in line to acquire it. Two weeks ago the school board authorized staff to submit an application that will preserve the option while the federal government evaluates the proposal and the district explores the possibility in more depth. Even if the application is successful, SPS could still release its hold on the building later.

But the four-story fortress just happens to be the same size as a Seattle elementary school—one that could serve about 600 students, said Flip Herndon, Assistant Superintendent for Capital, Facilities, and Enrollment Planning at SPS. As this map shows, there are currently 427 SPS students enrolled in grades K—5 who live within a one-mile radius of the building, and 1026 enrolled students living within a mile and a half.

Renovation costs are currently estimated at around $50 million. Those are a little higher than usual, Herndon said, because the building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Local historic preservationists also recently sued to obtain local landmark status, but it’s not clear whether that would further complicate the conversion plans.

Still, that’s not that much more than what it costs to build a new elementary school from scratch. And one of the major barriers to opening a downtown school has been the exorbitant price of land, and the fact that the school district doesn’t have any. (It used to own a 2-acre parcel in South Lake Union that was the site of the former Cascade School, which was damaged in a 1949 earthquake. The school never re-opened, and the district traded away the land in 1988.)

There’s no funding to pay for the renovations in existing budgets, but the district will eventually begin prioritizing projects for another school levy to go before voters in early 2016. The school board may also need to weigh other financing options, Herndon said, since the federal guidelines say SPS would have three years to open the school if its application is approved.

Those questions will be considered in the coming months as staff presents different options to the school board. If the application is successful, the board will ultimately decide whether the investment makes sense, Herndon said:

You just don’t get opportunities like this in a downtown environment with properties this size. It’s a very unique situation, and that’s why we’re exploring it, but…this is just one step.

This has really bought more time for the school district to go through the process we would normally go through—having public conversations about what a downtown school means, the impact on resources and funding and boundaries for other schools.

The #1 Priority for Downtown Families

Seattle is becoming the rare major city without an elementary school to serve families living downtown. Vancouver BC has three overflowing public elementary schools downtown and is scrambling to build a fourth. Portland opened a non-profit public charter school downtown a decade ago. Des Moines, Iowa, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Chattanooga, Tennessee all have them. One of the other big holdouts just opened the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School last year.

In focus groups conducted in 2012 with downtown Seattle families, a high-quality, public elementary school downtown—which could serve as an anchor for families and help create a stronger sense of community—was the single highest priority for parents. Many participants at the time had children nearing school age, and most were planning to leave downtown, according to the Downtown Seattle Association, which conducted the focus group research and has been one of the leading proponents for a downtown school.

After her husband got a job in downtown Seattle nearly four years ago, Miller’s family moved from a suburban home in Missouri to a “temporary” two-bedroom downtown apartment.They figured they’d be there for a couple months until they figured out what neighborhood they wanted to live in. To their surprise, they fell in love with downtown living, and are committed to staying.

But they’ve lost three families with children, just in their own apartment building, to suburbs like Lynnwood or other cities like San Francisco where they could live in an urban environment and still have a neighborhood school. Miller said:

We had friends in the building with a daughter exactly the same age as our oldest. They always said that if Seattle didn’t have a downtown school by the time she got to kindergarten, they would move away. And they did.

So what’s happening is that people are leaving the urban homes they love and just filling up schools somewhere else. All we are asking for is a school in our neighborhood, and this is our neighborhood. I don’t think it’s too much to ask.

There’s also a compelling demographic case to be made for one.

A recent Downtown Seattle Association analysis found that more babies (265) were born in 2011 to families living downtown than any other school attendance area in the city. To compare, there were fewer than 100 babies born within the attendance boundaries of popular schools like Loyal Heights, Beacon Hill International, John Stanford International, Laurelhurst, and McGilvra elementary schools.

And downtown families are choosing Seattle Public Schools in greater numbers. Over the last five years, the number of downtown children enrolling in public schools has grown by 31 percent, compared to 11 percent for the district as a whole. SPS’ Herndon described it this way:

We could probably fill a downtown school right now—that would be my guess. But it’s not just about what’s going on right now. It’s also what’s coming in the future. And there’s certainly a lot of building going on downtown.

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  1. Eric de Place says:

    Great article, Jen. In addition to serving residents of downtown, over the longer term I’d love to see SPS explore the notion of serving the workforce.

    My belief is that the “natural” demand for a downtown school is far greater than the Census counts suggest. I’ll bet if you counted up the population at downtown day cares and preschools—to say nothing of the private elementary schools—you’d find many hundreds more kids whose caregivers already take their children to school downtown, and probably pay a premium to do it.

    It shouldn’t be surprising. In an era when many families have two working parents, locating schools (and allowing students to attend schools) near employment centers could well make more sense than locating them near their residences. As demonstrated by the overflowing kid population at downtown childcare centers, many families already see a clear advantage to school near the job.

    Families that commute to work together—whether by bike, foot, bus, or carpool—get valuable extra time together. And as a cherry on top, I wouldn’t be surprised if co-locating schools with employment centers ended up saving the districts money by reducing the need for the costly and awkward school bus routes between lower-density housing and neighborhood schools.

    Does anyone know if other cities have evaluated siting schools based on employment centers rather than residence?

  2. Scott says:

    Great artarticle and summary of the situation. I agree that retaining and drawing families to downtown is esstential to improving the neighborhood’s livability and character.

    If the federal deal doesn’t go through, we could build a school over I-5 like the convention center. I incorporated the idea into a larger proposal to lid the freeway between Madison and Olive.

    Link here: http://northwesturbanist.wordpress.com/2014/07/05/lets-bury-i-5-redux/

  3. Donald Read says:

    Thanks for bringing this up for discussion. I work at a SPS school on Beacon Hill with middle school students with special needs. Most special needs classes do not get a great deal of attention from the district (to say the least) but we have a student who’s family lives downtown, their child needs our type of program, and there is not one available in any place closer than our school. The couple on top of it all are carless. This last school year we ran into the real life problem faced by a family who are in just the population you have referred in your article. They needed to leave work, find a car/taxi, come to school and pick their child up because of an illness. This cost the parent an entire day of work.
    The student is brought to school via taxi which in itself is a very expensive proposition. Special needs classes are expensive, but necessary and if schools open with adequate programs then cost per student would drop, and care would increase.

  4. Melissa Westbrook says:

    “..to acquire a 100,000 square foot building in downtown Seattle—for free.”

    Well, $50M isn’t exactly free. And the district has on-going capacity issues in nearly every section of the district. It will be hard for the district to justify the time and money for this project.

    This is not to say that it’s not worthy – it is. But I am amazed to see so many downtown businesses and foundations that want this and yet have offered virtually no help. The district cannot do this on their own.

    And, the district cannot reorganize its very long list of buildings for one section of the district.

    You could risk the entire levy if that happened and parents throughout the district felt that their children’s schools had been waiting for capital attention for years and suddenly got pushed down the list. The district’s maintenance backlog is about $500M. You can imagine the need with that sum of money.

    As well, there is always the possibility – as happened in Denver – that the building would become a charter school. Under the Washington state charter law, it would be possible for Seattle Schools to renovate the building and start a school only to see it taken over by a charter group. That would not be a good outcome and yet, it’s possible.

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