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.
In addition to the school enrollment data and changing demographics of downtown Seattle, the need for a new downtown school can also be seen in residents’ demand for a more cohesive downtown community.
Making a Downtown for Families
Hughes’ earlier comment alluded to a sentiment that many downtown residents share – it can be tough to raise children downtown when there are few community based programs and amenities that support families with children. During DSA’s focus group earlier this year, a majority of parents noted that the current challenges they face in connecting with other downtown parents was due to the lack of community centers and children’s play areas, in addition to a school.
A recent study of other downtowns, also lacking community centers and other supportive neighborhood amenities, show that schools can help offset this disconnect by providing a strong common ground for urban living parents. However, the real opportunity for Seattle would be to create a Downtown school that incorporates community space, publicly accessible outdoor play areas and green space such that education and community becomes a fully integrated living environment.
Similarly, an urban school can also provide ample opportunities to expand the learning environment beyond the classroom walls and form curriculum partnerships with downtown based institutions, arts organizations and companies. One such example can be seen at Minneapolis’ Interdistrict School where partnerships with the nearby university, performing arts center and county government center have provided the opportunity to form ‘external laboratories’ for students to gain exposure to hands-on learning. These sorts of opportunities are uniquely suited to dense downtown settings where students can easily access and engage surrounding organizations on a daily basis.
Learning from Vancouver B.C.
If we can all agree based on current data and social demand, that Seattle is in need of a Downtown school then the remaining issue at hand is one of implementation. On the forefront of the study's partners’ minds is the need for past precedents on how other cities have successfully implemented a new public downtown school.
Fortunately, our northern neighbors in Vancouver, B.C. have proven that downtown schools can not only work, but be wildly successful. Vancouver’s False Creek North redevelopment turned the former Expo 86 site into high density, mixed-use development that included a downtown public school. The project necessitated planning from the ground up for new residential buildings, schools, community centers, and parks.
In this situation, the effort was less about responding to existing demand for family-friendly amenities, and more about creating a long-term vision and plan for a new community on 91 acres of previously industrial land.
Graham McGarva, Principal of VIA Architecture, [Editor's note: McGarva is a Founding Partner of the author's firm.] led the master planning of the project. “The creation of a public school wasn’t in response to a large number of families already living in downtown Vancouver,” says McGarva. “Instead, planning for families and for a school, created the demand, drawing hundreds of families with young children downtown.”
Over 20 years later, the project's continuing success demonstrates the power of proactive urban planning in influencing who chooses to live and raise children in a downtown environment. As the first residential towers were completed in 1997, the community center and daycare were being constructed, setting the stage for the development of the new Elsie Roy Elementary School, which opened in 2004. After eight years of operation and many happy parents later, Elsie Roy was expanded in 2011 to accommodate an additional 65 children, bringing the school’s enrollment to 420 students.
Recently written up in the Vancouver Westender newspaper, Elsie Roy maintains a waitlist and a host of impressive student resources, including, “interactive whiteboards, 60 iPads for student use (thanks primarily to one of their community partners, the Yaletown Lions Club), the Middle Years Baccalaureate program, Wi-Fi everywhere, and the means to provide inclusive, personalized learning in a multi-cultural, urban setting.”
Elsie Roy is the first of two downtown schools to be built in the Round House neighborhood of downtown Vancouver and serves as a great study of how Seattle could build its own successful downtown school.
Further, existing demand and overcrowded conditions in adjacent schools suggest that the time is right for Seattle to plan and identify funding for the development of a new school downtown; a school that would support city policy goals for increasing residential density downtown and provide a much needed community base for downtown families. As McGarva says, “There is never a good time to delay putting in a downtown school.”
Amanda Bryan is an Intern Architect at VIA Architecture. Since gaining her master's degree in architecture from Washington State University, much of her personal and professional energy has been focused on urban design and its relationship to the health of communities.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!