Many cities, faced with increasing populations and a growing demand for urban living, are moving toward making their downtowns welcoming residential neighborhoods for families with children. Seattle is no different. In the last year, a new and exciting effort among government and private sector leaders has emerged to respond to downtown Seattle's changing demographics.
Since 1990, downtown Seattle’s population has grown by over 70 percent according to census data, making it the fastest growing neighborhood in Seattle within the last two decades. The overall population has increased by 25,000 new residents, and the neighborhood is now home to over 1,700 children 15 and under, and more than 3,000 children 19 and under. These are not small numbers. Downtown Seattle has welcomed more residents in the last 20 years than downtown San Francisco, Portland, Denver, San Diego and many other U.S. peer cities.
Developers are rushing to respond to this demand, currently building or planning to break ground on over 3,000 housing units within Downtown this year, more than at any one time in the last decade. For many families though, there is still a major obstacle standing between them and downtown living: neighborhood schools.
Earlier this year, the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), Seattle Public Schools, and the City of Seattle began a study to determine the projected population increase of kids living downtown, as well as the demand for the future siting of what would be the first public school in downtown Seattle since the late 1940’s. The partners plan to complete the study by June of this year, in time to inform Seattle Public Schools’ six-year capital building levy, expected to appear on the February 2013 ballot.
According to a draft scope of the study, the partners are considering "variations of K-12 public schools" in north Downtown.
To date, the north Downtown area (Belltown/Uptown/SLU/Denny Triangle neighborhoods) has been identified as the location with the greatest potential to site a public school, given the increase in population, the opportunity to absorb increasing enrollment generated within neighborhoods north of Downtown, and the proximity of potential allied organizations and partners, including the Pacific Science Center and Cornish College of the Arts.
In addition, the City is set for a major rezone of SLU in 2012, which could provide the opportunity to include incentives to help facilitate school development. The SLU rezone will potentially lead to new investments in housing and commercial projects, which present the opportunity for considering co-location of a school facility.
Still in its early phases, the effort to site a new Downtown school has already been met with strong support from parents. “It's not always easy, but we love raising our five-year-old son downtown,” says Paul Hughes, who lives in Pioneer Square. “We do give up having a yard, but we gain so much in exchange — not just the obvious stuff like being close to the downtown library and the aquarium and Seattle Center, but just the daily reality of walking around, riding the bus and the train, and eating and shopping in a bustling, diverse, unpredictable environment.” Hughes’ view is shared by a host of other Downtown parents as well.
Analyzing Current Demand
In focus groups conducted in March with current and former downtown parents, the Downtown Seattle Association found that although many parents strongly valued the benefits the downtown environment provided for their children, one of the primary reasons they plan or have already chosen to leave Downtown is due to the lack of a public school within the Downtown neighborhood. Current elementary school boundaries place downtown children in two schools outside the downtown neighborhood, John Hay and Bailey Gatzert – both of which are at capacity. Downtown’s share of John Hay’s overall enrollment has steadily climbed since 2007 and today nearly one in five children attending John Hay lives downtown.
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