Seattle mayor to push for downtown school in South Lake Union
Mayor Mike McGinn wants to offer developers in South Lake Union the chance to build a taller residential or office building in exchange for providing space for a public school. If approved by the city council, it's a step toward the kind of assistance Seattle Public Schools says it needs to open a downtown elementary in the next few years.
Seattle Times education reporter
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn wants to offer developers in South Lake Union the chance to build a taller residential or office building in exchange for providing space for a public school.
After months of talks between Seattle Public Schools and the city, the proposal is the first concrete sign the mayor wants to help the school district open an elementary school in the downtown area, which hasn't had one in decades.
"We want to see a school built downtown," said McGinn spokesman Aaron Pickus. "We're looking for a way to make the path easier for a developer to build one."
But the mayor's idea, tucked into his proposal to rezone the South Lake Union neighborhood, doesn't go as far as the school district wants, said School Board President Michael DeBell.
It also doesn't clear up other questions about whether a new school will be created anytime soon in the central part of the city.
The City Council would have to approve the idea. A developer would have to come forward. Perhaps most important, the district would have to find the money to turn commercial or residential space in a private project into a school, and it's not clear where those dollars would come from.
The mayor and other city officials believe developers would find it attractive to house a school in the lower floors of a building, then charge more for the higher floors they would be able to add.
Others think schools should continue to be funded strictly through levies and bonds.
But DeBell said the city should do more, and he plans to continue to push to include schools in an existing city program that covers the costs of adding affordable housing, open space and child-care centers to growing neighborhoods.
Under the incentive zoning program, developers pay a fee toward such projects in exchange for the opportunity to exceed the usual limits on building height and space.
If the city opened that program to schools, it would be the first time in recent memory that Seattle public-school construction would be financed through anything other than voter-approved property-tax levies and bonds.
Pickus declined to say whether the mayor would support that change.
DeBell thinks it's time for that to happen.
"We feel we have a strong case that all developers who are adding greater density in South Lake Union to be part of the solution," he said.
The discussion comes as the school district prepares to finalize a long list of construction projects it plans to put on the February ballot.
District officials have been meeting with the public to get input on the proposal, with the last session Thursday evening.
The School Board will put the final touches on the package in November, but it looks like the district will ask voters to approve remodeling or reopening about 15 schools, as well as making seismic upgrades and technology improvements at many more.
Earlier this year, the district also included $32 million in that package to build a school in the downtown area.
Until recently, downtown didn't need one because few students lived there. But that's changing.
According to a study by the Downtown Seattle Association, the area already has 272 students in grades K-5 alone and is projected to have between 352 and 470 by 2020.
But the district recently dropped the $32 million to $5 million, saying it had to give priority to other schools around the city that are full or overflowing, with rows of portables lined up outside. Many other buildings also need safety and other upgrades.
When it came to keeping the final levy proposal to no more than roughly $600 million to $650 million, district leaders cut most of the money for the downtown school as well as a number of other projects from their initial list. That $5 million is slated for planning and perhaps starting the downtown school at a temporary location.
To open a permanent downtown school anytime soon, the district sent a clear message it would need to find another way to pay for construction. Otherwise, it would continue to bus downtown students to schools in Queen Anne, Magnolia and Capitol Hill. The district already owns school sites on Queen Anne and in Magnolia that could be reopened.
Pegi McEvoy, assistant superintendent of operations, said the district continues to look at many funding possibilities, in addition to the incentive zoning program — everything from land donations to philanthropic gifts.
It also may seek help with building schools in other neighborhoods as well.
School Board Vice President Kay Smith-Blum said that as much as all neighborhoods need open space, affordable housing and child-care centers, they also need schools.
"We need to have this conversation now, folks," she said. "Our levies are not going to get us where we need to be."
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org