Wednesday, July 15, 2009

One Building's Fate and the Tensions Surrounding It

Can the fate of a single building change the dynamics of a neighborhood? It feels that way for at least one Seattle community.

Like an island nestled in a neighborhood lined with historic houses and trees, a building sits equally old and brimming with history. It has been the home to many school children over the decades, filling the neighborhood with sounds of laughter and faces of many colors. With summer rapidly approaching the doors to the Columbia School building will be closing. But unlike other schools, the doors will close indefinitely, its fate undecided.

Since it's eventual closure was slated in 2005, the Columbia City community has been tugging on the coattails of the Seattle School District for years, yearning for answers regarding the fate of the building in the heart of their neighborhood. The district's deafening silence, paired with their broadly publicized budget deficit of $34 million has resulted in the creation of swelling hopes and dreams for the building. An inevitable outcome when the community has never been told “no.”

In this rough economy closures have become an epidemic. Like wild fire, they burn through cities and neighborhoods, leaving empty spaces that may have once been vibrant. Schools are no exception and though our reaction has dulled the sting for some has not.

“It's an issue going on in about every urban city,” explains developer Scott Barkan of Beacon Development Group.

In the last 7 years Seattle Schools has closed and inventoried 10 school buildings. From Magnolia Elementary closed in 2002 to Fairmount Park in West Seattle, these buildings sit unoccupied as remnants of the past seemingly forgotten.

The Columbia School building had been the home to the alternative program Orca since 1989, but in a 2005 news release Seattle Schools recommended the building's eventual closure. In 2005 the building, designed in the '20s mission style, was 83 years old and had been showing its age with a faulty roof, a below code seismic rating, and in need of a general modernization to meet a school's needs. As a result it received a very low building rating and renovating it would be extremely expensive. Having to tighten their belts, the district decided to move Orca to Whitworth, combining the two to become a K-8 school. Combining the two programs and indefinitely closing the Columbia building would save the district over $350,000 annually.

“This building is at the end of its design lifespan. The Seattle Public Schools design lifespan is 50 years...” as quoted in the comments section of the document.

So that following summer the doors of the Columbia building were locked and not just for the season.

New life was breathed into the building when the it was selected as an interim site in 2007 for the New School while a modern building was being constructed for the program in South Shore. The Columbia building would house the program until 2009, but remained “slated for eventual closure.” Having only received minor upgrades the historical building was still ailing from age. Additionally, the building at capacity and with three portables was holding around 300 students. The typical model for an elementary school is around 400 students.

“From talking to parents and's just not up to par,” states the youthful librarian Gabriel Rapier of the Columbia City branch, between lecturing kids about the importance of returning books on time.
Anxiety is flourishing with concern amongst the community in anticipation of the closure. They are nervous because of what happened the first time the building stood vacant.

“There's been problems in the past when the school is vacant...crime sky rockets, bad things go on in the parking lot,” explains Dara Ayres, executive director of Bike Works, a non-profit organization two blocks down the street from the school.

Ayres stands in the kitchen of Bike Works remembering out loud the shady characters and behavior that took place after the Orca school's departure, expressing concern that the organization and neighbors felt about the vacancy.

Sitting on over 3 acres, surrounded by homes, and two blocks from Columbia City's landmark district the real possibility of crime and vandalism on this island of land has made most members of the community nervous, not just the immediate neighbors. Besides safety, the community does not want to see this historic building fall into disrepair becoming an enormous eye sore in an otherwise charming neighborhood. The building is also less than a mile from the nearly completed Columbia City light rail station, making Edmonds Street and South Ferdinand Street (where the building stands) the two main thoroughfares to the downtown area. If visitors choose the latter, passing the lot would be inevitable. Columbia City residents are worried about what visitors might see when passing the block of land if left vacant.

Generally speaking, Barkan explains the inevitable possibilities of vacant buildings.

“The weeds start growing and spray paint doesn't get removed as quickly. You don't have eyes on the can be a really nasty place.”

As relayed by Barkan and Ayres, immediate neighbors are generally concerned about it just being vacant but some community entities are interested in possibly leasing or buying the building. The fact that the building was inventoried paired with the district's silence regarding its future plans has aroused interest and the idea that the building might be attainable. This is not far fetched considering the pending sale of the University Heights building which has been converted into a community center.

“Historically the district did not sell property but they need the money,” excitedly theorizes Pat Chemnick of Southeast Effective Development (SEED) on the phone.

Being in the center of the neighborhood, it is an enticing piece of land with real possibilities. The fate of the property could make a real impact on the dynamic of the neighborhood that is facing ongoing growth while simultaneously fighting gentrification. The majority of interest has been expressed by non-profit organizations seeking to make a difference and viewing the property as a prime location to do so.

“The people at the meeting loved the idea of Bike Works or multiple non-profit organizations operating on the ground floor for mixed use. They got wildly excited about that. But the school district wasn't interested in selling and they were really sort of dodgy about they wanted to do with it (Columbia school building),” remembers Ayres, explaining the interest that was generated the first time the school went vacant.

Bike Works has not readily expressed interest in the building this time around, having been denied the first time.
“Arts in motion is another example. Zion Prep is interested in the space as well,” says Barkan as he rattles off endless ideas for the building if its spaces were up for grabs.

Attachments become strong to buildings like this, buildings preceding their neighbors, epicenters of communities, a place of learning and old friend. Barkan explains that the property can be viewed as sort of owned in theory by a community because of this, a community asset.

“It can be one of those tools for fighting gentrification,” he says. A tool in a limited toolbox.

As these aspirations germinate, the community has been struggling for the last four years to communicate with the school district. Initiating a conversation has been generally unsuccessful and frustrating for the community.

“The real story is getting any information from the school district. It is irresponsible to ignore the dynamics of a community,” angrily exclaims Columbia City resident Rob Mohn on the phone.

Realizing the need to band together, Barkan, also a resident of Columbia City, helped found the group Friends of the Columbia School. The group's conception came to be about four years ago, right around the time it was made public that the building would eventually be closed. Discussions between neighbors and community members evolved into the group which is focused on organizing a cohesive and diverse voice amongst the community regarding the building. Their goal was to be prepared if the school came to them so they could explore questions surrounding financing the building, the historical aspect, and how these characteristics play into the development of the building and/or the property.

“We were not interested in taking ownership, proposing ideas to rent or buy the building,” says Barkan.

The problem: the school district has not initiated or provided any tangible information to the group or the community.

This has made organizing the group extremely difficult.

“It's never been clear how we can best organize neighbors and the community to interact with the city and school district if the city and school district didn't know exactly what they wanted to do with the building,” states Barkan.

Aspirations aside, he understands that the building is not actually owned by the community and that the district has different priorities and fiscal responsibilities that may override community interests, but would like to work together nonetheless. Should the community be a part of the decision process? It is a question that many communities are grappling with.

Barkan tried to contact Ron English, the Deputy General Counsel who oversees facilities, real estate and purchasing for the district, two weeks ago and never heard back.

“We've been contacted many times. I tend not to pay attention and I tell them I'll put them on the mailing list,” says English casually.

Deciding what to do with property owned by the school district is a tricky business. They have to examine kindergarten registration projections, changing neighborhoods, new transportation developments, and ever changing budgets. The result has been a process under constant revision with little in the way of concrete plans. New developments can result in sporadic plans that are be made at the drop of a hat.

“It's a brush off because I don't want to say 'no,' but I can only do it on our time table,” says English explaining putting interested parties on the mailing list.

English is interested in the building for some of the same reasons as the community. The new light rail station is one of the those reasons. But as plans change, he does not know for sure what the district intends to do with the property.

“It's an interesting building. It would have a lot of potential if we actually left it vacant for several years and then tried to do something with it,” ponders English, but not committing to anything.

It could be a school again he explains. This could be in two years or ten years, which could result in the historic building being leveled. It might house a consolidated alternative program as soon as the next school year. He may want to lease parts of the building short term. He just does not know and so he remains silent. But one thing he does not for sure...”We're not selling the property.”

He could have at least told them that.