After two decades of the city directing growth to Seattle’s urban centers, nearly 60,000 people now call downtown home, with additional residential units going up as fast as the city can process permits. As people prioritize the health and environmental benefits of the dense, walkable living area, and as Seattle employers continue to attract talent from around the world, the downtown residential boom will continue. Yet downtown still lacks the crucial element that turns a neighborhood into a community: a public school.
The need for a downtown school has never been greater. The Downtown Seattle Association reports that in downtown — Seattle’s largest and most populous neighborhood — the largest growth demographic is young children. In 2001, 110 children were born to downtown families west of I-5. In 2012, that figure had climbed to 265. The number of downtown households is projected to increase by 10 percent in the next five years. Downtown enrollment in Seattle Public Schools has grown faster than the rest of the district, from 482 students in 2007 to 598 today, a nearly 25 percent increase.
Seattle and Seattle Public Schools have long considered a downtown school (the current school levy includes $5 million for planning for one), but acquiring property in downtown is difficult. Happily, a solution may have arrived: the 90,000 square-foot Federal Reserve Bank Building on Second Avenue between Spring and Madison streets. The federal government is disposing of the building and will convey the building and land to a public entity for public use.
Seattle and Seattle Public Schools are currently in second position to acquire the building. Federal law gives priority to organizations serving people who are homeless, and a coalition of the area’s most reputable groups have proposed to use the building for homeless services, a shelter and as a drop-in center. If the Department of Health and Human Services concludes that the coalition’s proposal is viable, the coalition gets the facility.
If, on the other hand, a homeless use does not materialize, local and state governments, including the city and Seattle Public Schools, have an opportunity to develop an application to the federal government. SPS should use some of its planning budget to determine whether the building could succeed as a public school. At first blush, the centrally located site has a number of advantages. It is near several educational opportunities unique to Downtown Seattle, such as the Central Library, Soundbridge at Benaroya, the waterfront with the Seattle Aquarium and the Seattle Art Museum. The existing structure has ample space for a rooftop playground. And, not only is it within walking distance of thousands of downtown households, it is also well-served by public transit.
The Federal Reserve Bank building represents a unique opportunity for SPS to address — for perhaps $40 million in repairs and updates, roughly the same total price as a typical elementary school in a single-family neighborhood — a pressing educational need that will only grow as the years go by. This option merits serious consideration, and I urge the City and SPS to study the possibilities of this building and this location.
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