Update: The federal General Services Administration plans to auction off the Federal Reserve Bank building, with an opening bid of $1 million and a closing date of Jan. 28, 2015.
The Seattle Public Schools Board of Directors disappointed hundreds of downtown families and residents yesterday by unanimously voting against plans to acquire the vacant Federal Reserve Bank building—at least through a federal disposition process that would let the district have it for free—and turn it into a downtown school.
It’s an enormous missed opportunity, based largely on what seems like a solvable timing conflict. The decision will almost certainly cost the district more in the long run, whether it winds up serving downtown’s growing population of children there or somewhere else. As Jon Scholes, a downtown parent and vice-president of the Downtown Seattle Association put it: “The growth and the challenge isn’t going away. This isn’t a blip. This is a need.”
Some board members expressed interest in letting the building go to public action and trying to buy it then. That way the district wouldn’t be under a federal timetable that would force it to renovate and open the elementary school before it can line up the money to do so. It’s unclear how much that would add to the downtown school’s price tag, though Scholes pegged the acquisition costs at $20 million. It’s also unclear where that money would come from.
The four-story former Federal Reserve Bank building that sits on a half block of valuable downtown land at Second and Spring has been vacant for six years. The federal government is willing to let nonprofits or government agencies have surplus buildings for free, but the gift comes with strings.
The main sticking point appears to be the federal government’s requirement for the district to renovate the building and open the new elementary school within three years. The school district can’t line up funding and meet that timetable with its business-as-usual approach to financing new schools. The renovations are estimated to cost $53 million, and the district only has $5 million in its current capital budget allocated for exploring a downtown school.
It could build the request into its next school building levy, but even if voters approve it, the money wouldn’t become available in time to meet the federal deadline, according to school board members. And they were unwilling to take on that amount of debt now, with no guaranteed source of funding to pay it off. Here’s how school board director Sue Peters put it:
We all know Seattle is a growing city…and the idea of having a downtown school makes perfect sense. The question is, though, is this the right choice for us at this point? As I see it, there are two main challenges. One is simply the money…we don’t have the funds to pay for this at this time. It’s predicted to cost at least $53 million to take this building and repurpose it as a school. Right now we would have to basically borrow against a future levy. It would not be fiscally responsible to do so, and it would also violate board policy.
I believe that our best option here is to allow this to go to market and to bid on it there. That would allow us to take advantage of this opportunity but not be constricted by the three-year timeline and allow us to prioritize how we use this building and when we use this building.
Few school board directors disputed the need for a downtown school. Already, there are 427 elementary school-aged children who live within a mile of the Second Avenue and Spring Street site. Children living downtown are currently bused to public schools on Queen Anne or Capitol Hill, with long commutes through downtown traffic. Parents who have chosen to live downtown because they can easily get to everything they need without a car—work, great cultural resources, restaurants, the waterfront—say those logistics make it difficult to volunteer or feel like their families are fully part of their school communities.
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A recent Downtown Seattle Association analysis found that more babies (265) were born in 2011 to families living downtown than any other school attendance area in the city. To compare, there were fewer than 100 babies born within the attendance boundaries of popular schools like Loyal Heights, Beacon Hill International, John Stanford International, Laurelhurst, and McGilvra elementary schools.
The Federal Reserve Bank building could house 660 elementary students. Adding that same amount of capacity by expanding existing elementary schools nearby would carry a price tag of $64 million, significantly more than it would cost to renovate the bank building.
Downtown parents have been frustrated that critics portray the need for a downtown school as some sort of “extra” or “luxury” that the district can’t afford. As parent Bradley Calvert told the school board:
We are not asking for special accommodations or frivolous benefits to support some obscure lifestyle choice. We are asking for the same access to education as other neighborhoods and to satisfy a need and demand that’s only going to grow. This is your opportunity and our opportunity to make downtown Seattle liveable for all ages.
In focus groups conducted in 2012 with downtown Seattle families, a high-quality, public elementary school downtown—which could serve as an anchor for families and help create a stronger sense of community—was the single highest priority for parents. Portland opened one a decade ago, and Vancouver BC’s three downtown schools can’t keep up with demand.
But even strong supporters of a downtown school on the board said they couldn’t vote to acquire the federal bank building, given the lack of funding for renovations and the federal requirements to fast track the project. As board member Stephan Blanford said:
I have great sadness about this… Last night I had the opportunity to drive by this building, and I looked at it and thought, “what an incredible opportunity it would be for us if we were able to take this building and reconfigure it and serve our burgeoning population of students downtown.” But my colleagues have convinced me that that wouldn’t be fiscally sound and…would be an abdication of our responsibility. I hope beyond hope that we are able to figure out through the auction process some way to acquire the building or another building at some point.
Before the unanimous vote, board president Sharon Peaslee encouraged the federal government to let the district acquire the building without the restrictions that it initially imposed:
I would like to invite the federal government to reconsider their offer to truly give us this building free, with no caveats and no restrictions. If that were the case, I would gladly vote in favor of this. However, we don’t have $53 million to commit to turning this building into a school within three years and those are the requirements. So we cannot meet the requirements of the federal government. I will be voting against this— however, I extend a heartfelt invitation to the federal government to come back to us with another offer.