As Washington begins a historic era of school construction and investment, Seattle and other cities must prioritize land for these essential buildings. Squeezing a “downtown school” onto a small lot by Seattle Center is a poor start.
If Seattle truly wants to support the education of its children, it should give them better places to learn.
Instead, the city is giving a prime school site to housing developers while the school district is looking to build on a substandard location.
This isn’t a good start to the historic surge in school construction Seattle and the state will see as we begin fully funding K-12 schools.
Billions will be spent building schools to accommodate the growing population, especially around Seattle, and because the state is paying for smaller class sizes.
Cities and counties are required to support school construction under the state’s growth-management law. Their land-use plans must provide sufficient land for schools and other public facilities.
That’s the primary way cities can support education and improve opportunities for children.
Cities should also give schools first crack at any suitable parcels of public land, as their contribution to our education investment.
Such support might ease the pain of tax increases the state’s K-12 funding plan will bring, by lowering the cost of schools that taxpayers fund. The state should also update formulas for its school-construction grants, as suggested repeatedly by state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle.
New schools also help cities fulfill their obligation to provide recreation areas and open space concurrent with growth.
Seattle has these needs, plus thousands of new students expected to arrive in the next few years at schools that are now overcrowded.
Mayor Ed Murray announced an “Education Action Plan” in April. It calls for spending $15 million a year on mentorship, after-school and pre-K programs.
Those sound good, but they should be frosting on the cake. The cake in this case is a school system with capacity to educate the city’s children, and it’s far from baked.
Murray’s education plan says nothing about new schools, and his land-use plan says little about siting them.
The city had encouraged the Seattle Public Schools to build a new school on a Seattle Center parking garage along Mercer Street, as part of a land swap involving Memorial Stadium. The district declined and is now considering a new high school on Memorial Stadium’s 2.7 acre parking lot adjacent to Seattle Center.
Downtown interests have sought a “downtown” school for years. They should rebuild Cascade school in South Lake Union — the playfield’s still there. Or ask Paul Allen to put a school on his open block on Westlake Avenue.
Instead, the “downtown school” effort now syncs with Murray’s effort to firm up Seattle Center’s redevelopment this year. It involves rebuilding KeyArena and Memorial Stadium, which is owned by the district and used for school sports.
This is moving quickly behind the scenes. Costs are still undetermined, but the school is projected to open around 2023.
There are several reasons to be concerned.
An entirely new high school should be a grand investment built on community support, not squeezed into a forlorn corner of a larger project.
It should be built for students, not sited to appease property investors. The project’s dubbed the “downtown school,” but it’s not downtown; it’s primarily to serve Magnolia and Queen Anne.
Having a theater-district school sounds neat, but there’s already an alternative high school at the Center.
The stadium lot is too small for the full-size school the service area needs. High schools ideally have 40 acres. Ballard High has 13 acres, and Roosevelt has about 10.
The site is almost inaccessible during rush hours. That’s before KeyArena is upgraded for more events, and thousands of Expedia employees join the Mercer Street gridlock.
Parent involvement will plummet at a school with minimal parking that’s hard to reach. Walking and biking aren’t feasible for most staff and students given the service area’s hilly topography.
It’s expensive to build vertically on a small site, which also lacks room for ballfields needed by its densifying neighborhood.
My biggest objection, though, is that Seattle has a far better site in the service area that it’s offering to developers — the former Army Reserve training center by Discovery Park in Magnolia. The 29 acres are perfect for a school, but City Hall would prefer to see a smorgasbord of 200 housing units.
Seattle has housing challenges, but 200 units won’t move the needle. More than 20,000 new units are being constructed this year and next; Seattle had 316,000 existing housing units in 2015.
Those 200 units would increase the housing supply by 0.06 percent. That will do less for affordability than using the acreage for a school, which would save many millions on construction costs and building playfields elsewhere. Both are funded by property taxes.
The district wouldn’t be in this pickle if it hadn’t sold so many prime properties to developers in years past, including the apparently illegal sale of Queen Anne High in the 1980s for $6.5 million.
Improving outcomes for developers is apparently Seattle’s paramount duty.
Building a school, instead of a subdivision, by Discovery Park would be special. It could have an ecology focus and room to grow. It would show that Seattle is getting its priorities straight.
This would also set a good example for other neighborhoods and cities that will face similar choices — and opportunities — during the momentous era of school investment we’re entering.
Information in this article, originally published June 7, 2017, was corrected June 14, 2017. A previous version of this column incorrectly stated that the city was pressing for a new school on Memorial Stadium’s parking lot. It was the district’s decision to consider building on the stadium lot.