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Downtown Seattle Groups See Golden Opportunity For Their Own Neighborhood Public School

Kyle Stokes
The former Federal Reserve Bank branch building, located at Second Avenue and Spring Street in downtown Seattle, has sat vacant since 2009. Seattle Public Schools officials have submitted an application to take over the property.

Seattle Public Schools officials may soon get their best opportunity in years to open a public elementary school downtown, and various downtown interests are now pressing district leaders to take advantage of it.

District officials submitted an application earlier this month to move into the vacant building at Second Avenue and Spring Street, which once housed a Federal Reserve Bank branch.

Federal agencies no longer want the property and are considering whether to deed the building to Seattle Public Schools practically free of charge. If the feds grant school officials' application, downtown groups want to make sure the district follows through.

Downtown Seattle Association leaders, who've pushed for a decade to open a public school as a means of keeping families from moving to other neighborhoods, have issued talking points and asked supporters to attend a public meeting on the topic Monday night.

An Opening In A Pricey Real Estate Market 

"We think this is really the best [opportunity] we've seen in quite some time," said Jon Scholes, a vice president of the Downtown Seattle Association.

Downtown groups had long eyed the South Lake Union neighborhood as a more ideal location, hoping the school district could piggy-back the opening of an elementary on a new development in the booming neighborhood. Roughly 60 kids in grades K-8 live within a half-mile of the former bank building, and most of the 600 students within a mile of the building live in Belltown or Pioneer Square.

But "there just isn't space [in South Lake Union]," said Downtown Residents Council chair Linda Mitchell, who believes the district should pounce on this Central Business District location.

"Land is very expensive and getting more expensive," she added. "Here we have this great opportunity that is midway between Pioneer Square — which is growing, [with] more residential [buildings], more families — and Belltown or South Lake Union."

With Space And Upkeep In Mind, District Weighing The Options

The district would need to spend at least $30 million to refit the Cold-War era building as a school, and some school board members have already questioned whether it's worth that cost, especially with space in existing buildings running short and a millions of dollars-worth of maintenance already overdue.

At a school board meeting earlier this month, board member Sherry Carr said she'd like to weigh the bank building option against possible expansions of existing schools in the Yesler Terrace area or on Capitol Hill.

"I'll be the first one to publicly admit that I'm not particularly excited about the prospect of a downtown school," Carr said. "I also think it's important we do what we need to do to keep the option open."

District's Neighborhood Model At Stake

But downtown advocates say families are tired of sending their kids to other neighborhoods to receive elementary education, especially when Seattle Public Schools' model is built around neighborhood schools.

"The district is real clear that within distinct neighborhoods, they're providing K-5 education opportunities so that we're not constantly moving families and kids from one school, to the next school, to the next school depending on where the capacity is, which has it's own costs around transportation and continued investment in buildings," Scholes said.

Whether Seattle Public Schools leaders will even get the opportunity to consider the downtown site is not yet entirely clear. Federal officials still have to approve the district's application. Additionally, a group of Seattle homeless advocates is protesting the feds' decision to deny their bid for the building — a move they contend was improper. They say they haven't ruled out suing the feds over that denial.

Monday night's meeting, set for 6 p.m. at the Seattle Central Library, will be followed by a tour of the bank building at 7:15 p.m.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.
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