Downtown Seattle could be in line for 1st elementary school in years
After months of discussions with city planners and downtown developers, Seattle school officials have included $32 million to open a public elementary school in the South Lake Union area in the district's first draft project list for its next construction levy. The school wouldn't open until 2019.
Seattle Times education reporter
Downtown Seattle may be getting its first public elementary school in decades.
After months of conversations with city planners and business leaders, school-district administrators have acknowledged the likely need for a school in the northern part of downtown and agreed to participate in a feasibility study.
Officials stressed the effort is in its preliminary stages, with much discussion and many decisions to come — including how the building would be financed, where exactly it would be located, when it would open and which grade levels it would serve.
But the first draft of projects for Seattle Public Schools' next construction levy, presented to parents and community members last week, included $32 million to open a 500-student elementary in the South Lake Union area in 2019.
That's enough to build a school but not to buy land to put it on, said Pegi McEvoy, the district's assistant superintendent of operations. Developers have approached the district about donating property, but no decisions have been made, she said.
Vulcan Inc., the area's largest developer, is involved in the discussions about locating a school in north downtown, but has not talked with the district about a donation, spokesman David Postman said.
The school would fill a need city planners say is developing as more families move downtown.
Some parents are critical, believing the push for a downtown school is motivated by pressure from business and distracts from more pressing district issues, including deteriorating buildings and overcrowding.
The levy, focused on addressing those issues, is expected to total about $750 million, which would be a record.
Whether the school is built may depend on the feasibility study, funded by the Downtown Seattle Association, and the district's next enrollment projections, expected next month.
"It's mainly a placeholder," Seattle School Board Vice President Kay Smith-Blum said of a downtown school's inclusion on the draft project list. "There are many ways to approach a school in that vicinity, but none of the specific strategies have been addressed in detail yet."
The levy's project list will be completed in October. It will go to voters next February.
The district has not built a school at a new site in years and has not operated an elementary school in the downtown area in decades. The last major school in the South Lake Union area, Cascade School, closed after an earthquake in 1949.
Currently, the closest to downtown is The Center School, a small, arts-focused high school at Seattle Center.
Elementary-age students who live in the downtown corridor, which stretches from Pioneer Square to South Lake Union, now go to schools in Queen Anne, Capitol Hill or the Central District.
But as more families have moved into that area, planners and businesses have increasingly called for a school.
"It's a priority for us to look at as we try to make downtown family- and kid-friendly," said Randy Hurlow, a spokesman for the Downtown Seattle Association.
That organization's president, Kate Joncas, used her annual "State of Downtown" address in February to call for a school and outdoor play space.
At the time, a school-district spokeswoman downplayed the possibility, saying there was no effort to build a downtown elementary school. She has since said she was not aware of the meetings with the city, which have been going on at least since the summer.
School Board President Michael DeBell said he's been thinking about the need for a downtown school for much longer.
"I've been concerned about our having a very large hole in our coverage of the city for some time," said DeBell, adding that some of the Queen Anne schools he represents are among the most crowded in Seattle.
The downtown corridor is targeted for about half of Seattle's growth in the next few years, said Gary Johnson, a city planner who for years has pushed for a downtown school.
Tom Cain, president of the research firm Apartment Insights Washington, said downtown-apartment sizes have been growing but that the area is still dominated by studios and one-bedroom apartments.
Only 29 percent of apartments built downtown since 2000 were bigger than one-bedrooms, according to numbers provided by Cain. Still, that's higher than the 15 percent among apartments built before 2000.
Melissa Westbrook, a local education blogger, said at a public meeting last week she thinks downtown-school efforts have been driven by businessmen such as Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, and Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and chairman of Vulcan.
But DeBell said the school is needed.
"This has nothing to do with being responsive to our local companies. This has to do with being responsive to changing demographics," DeBell said.
"If we don't have a school, I'm not sure what happens to all the kids that live there."
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or email@example.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.
Information in this article, originally published April 8, 2012, was corrected April 9, 2012. A previous version of this story implied that Vulcan was involved in discussions about donating property for a downtown school.