The Seattle Times: Opinion – Seattle families need a new downtown high school

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This op-ed by DSA President and CEO Jon Scholes and Emily George of Parents for a Better Downtown Seattle was published in The Seattle Times on June 22, 2017.

There are more than 1,900 children 18 and under now calling downtown home.

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If you’ve spent time in downtown recently, you have undoubtedly seen the bustling sidewalks on weekdays and weekends. Look a little closer and you’ll notice that many of the people out and about are families with children. They’re playing in Westlake Park, enjoying the Aquarium, the Pike Place Market and the waterfront. What you might not know is that these children are just as likely to be residents of downtown than visitors from out of state.

Our two families chose to raise our children downtown because of the neighborhoods’ incredible diversity and family-friendly amenities. And we’re not alone. In fact, children are the fastest-growing demographic in our center city. More than 1,900 children live west of I-5 in downtown.

The increase in elementary-aged kids in downtown is outpacing the rest of the Seattle school district. Since 2007, the number of elementary-aged children enrolled from this area has increased nearly 80 percent.

The district is tracking these demographic shifts and is eager to site an elementary school downtown. Not only will a new school meet the needs of downtown families, it will alleviate further overcrowding of schools in the city that are currently accommodating downtown children.

The district is also appropriately planning to develop a new high school to serve downtown and the north/central area of the city, where high-school capacity is limited. The district is smart to evaluate land it already owns adjacent to Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center, eliminating additional cost for land acquisition. This area is well located to serve downtown and the north-central portion of the city. It’s also rich with potential for education partnerships with the numerous arts and science organizations at Seattle Center. The small, existing Center School would continue to operate.

In his recent column, “Don’t shoehorn ‘downtown school’ into Seattle Center” [June 7, Opinion], Seattle Times editorial page writer Brier Dudley argued that Discovery Park would be a better location than Seattle Center for a high school. He suggested that schools should only be sited on large swaths of land, a difficult proposition in a growing city like ours. The Discovery Park site, though a larger plot of land, is not a hub of residential growth; nor is it well-served by transit.

 In contrast, the neighborhoods surrounding Seattle Center — and downtown more broadly — are where population growth is occurring and where additional growth is planned. The Seattle Center area is walkable and well-served by bus transit, Monorail and light rail. With the passage of Sound Transit 3, two light-rail stations — near state Highway 99 and Harrison Street and the northwest corner of Seattle Center — will be constructed, increasing transportation access.
Dudley also asserted that Seattle Center’s smaller footprint will yield a “substandard” location and building for a school. This simply is not the case. Public and private schools across the world have been successfully developed in urban locations where land and space are limited.
The Northwest School located on Capitol Hill and designed by local architecture firm Mithun is a terrific example of a well-designed school accommodating grades 6-12 on a small urban site that smartly takes advantage of its roof for outdoor space. Single-story schools spread over acres of land with expansive parking lots have greater transportation and environmental costs and impacts than vertical schools located in walkable neighborhoods that are well-served by transit.
We are encouraged to see the Seattle school district step beyond the outdated model for school design and planning and take a proactive, forward-looking approach to serve an increasing population of children in downtown. The Seattle Center area is an ideal location for a new high school in our fast growing city.

The district is wise to seriously consider this opportunity in partnership with the city. The time is now and the need for additional education capacity in our urban core is growing by the day.