Alki Elementary modernization and expansion plans look like a done deal even if the neighbors hate it
Getting a clear understanding of the machinations of the Seattle School Board is a challenge. While meeting notices are sent out via a list, SEPA hearing notices are sent only to a small list. That’s the case in the proposed $66.9 million Alki Elementary modernization project. To get a transcript of that hearing, (transcribed since it’s a legal proceeding) costs over $2000 and a 10 day wait.
The plans and concepts were the subject of meetings with the School Design Advisory Team (SDAT) and began in late 2021. The SDAT, comprised of teachers, school parents, and one community member held seven meetings. So, that group got a full understanding of what the district and their architectural firm Mahlum Architects were proposing. The SDAT has no power per se.
Normally, a committee of citizens reviews Seattle public schools departures requests and makes the recommendation. Due to the pandemic restrictions, the normal rules were amended to give this responsibility to the Department of Neighborhoods (DoN) staff. DoN had a public comment period, but all of their staff deliberations were behind closed doors and no meetings were held with neighbors. 17 neighbors signed one comment letter on the departures, and comments also came in from a number of other neighbors, the Duwamish Tribe, and others.
Normal process with a School Departures Advisory Committee: "In order to assure that the views of nearby neighbors of the school, and the surrounding community, are given weight in any City decision to allow departures from the zoning, a departure committee is formed primarily from nearby neighbors of the school. The purpose of the committee is to review the departures requested, listen to and solicit the views of their neighbors, and make a recommendation to the Director of the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections (SDCI) concerning granting, denying, or conditioning any departures requested.”
Now, the project is headed toward a construction start in a few months, in the summer of this year.
The plans have been available online for some time but those plans have come under fire from neighbors of the school who maintain that their voices were not taken into account. They say that the plans to take the size of the school up to 57 feet high (for the atrium area) to accommodate a projected 540 students on the 1.4 acre site make little sense in the face of the demographics of the Alki neighborhood, the declining enrollment that Seattle Public Schools is seeing and the character of the neighborhood itself.
The portions of the building that exceed the maximum height include the third floor of the main school building, the main school building roof parapet, and the mechanical penthouse to enclose mechanical equipment.
* A “mechanical penthouse” is a room that is enclosed and protects equipment on the building roof. Enclosing the equipment increases longevity, reduces maintenance needs, and allows for more energy efficient equipment, and helps to reduce mechanical noise from affecting nearby properties.
The district is asking for nine departures from the City building code. All of which were recently recommended by the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods but not as yet approved by the Seattle Department of Construciton and Inspections. That decision will be appealable to the City of Seattle Hearing Examiner.
#1: Building Height: Exceed the 35 foot maximum height for schools in residential zones by 22 feet.
#2: Vehicular Parking Quantity: Eliminate all vehicle parking spaces on site.
#3: Bus Loading and Unloading: Retain on-street bus load zone instead of on site.
#4: New curb cut to serve a site without on-site parking.
#5: Curb Cut Width: Exceed maximum allowable 25 foot width by 10 feet.
#6: Curb Cut Flare: Double the maximum allowable 5 foot width.
#7: Bicycle Parking: Substantially reduce quantity below code minimum for elementary schools.
#8: Bicycle Parking Performance Standards: Provide bike shed instead of locked room or cage.
#9: Electronic Reader Board
At a recent meeting with community District 6 SPS board member Leslie Harris she said there was little she could do to change course for the plans, “Surprisingly to some, school board members don’t have a heck of a lot of power. We have two employees: the superintendent and the internal auditor. Our job is to pass the budget; our job is to hire and fire the superintendent and to make sure you don’t miss three legislative meetings in a row.”
She gets a lot of communication from West Seattle residents who probably don’t understand that there is little she can do to address their concerns. Harris said, “I probably average 25 to a hundred emails a day. Unfortunately, most of the time it's people with grievances.”
In that meeting one attendee expressed the frustration with the process and said,
“So I think there are, I don't know, around 40 to 50 of us from Alki that are frustrated about the process.
First of all, how the school came to be. We got postcards.I mean, I get more notice for a Macy's sale than I got for this....
I'll just share this short story here. I work in education, so I'm so supportive of this school, you know, like I couldn’t.
I feel like I should be the biggest supporter. And I'm getting these postcards, and then the links don't work.
They go to something that says, Page Not Found.
So we can't even get information. In fact, the neighbor had to do a public records request just to get information on the school that's well... in the process...
And so that has just been, like, 'wait, I voted for this, and now it's working against me'…There's no words about how frustrating that that was, because we're right next door to the school, and, you know, my entire life savings is in the property, basically that I own.
And, you know, I love being in that neighborhood. So, as you know, it's next to a 139-acre park (Alki Beach Park) with absolutely no on-site parking. Alki Elementary has parking right now, they wanna take out all of the parking.There will be zero parking for this new school. Zero.
So if we think about schools being accessible, and that's one of the goals of schools, you are directly working against accessibility by building this school.
Right now, it's not safe, because parents are going up on the side of the road. I have pictures I can send you. Okay?… and there is a current decrease in enrollment, and they're increasing enrollment at the school by 238 kids?
So there's like, some frustrations we have about the size of the school and on the smallest school site, in the city 1.4 acres. Right?
So the fact that we're taking out parking is one of the biggest concerns that I have, because it's gonna add 75 new full time staff members, and that doesn't count speech therapists, janitors, all the part time people.
And where will they park?
I already can't get out of my house during pick up and drop off.
I can't leave like people are blocking our driveway. We're up on the side street, right next to the school.But above and beyond that, I won't be able to probably live in the neighborhood with zero parking. And I can't imagine that we're all gonna move our kids to put them on a bike in the park, which I actually love to do, but I can't imagine we're gonna do that overnight. So I think that the main thing that I would implore, like, and I will do anything to help you if I can, that we build a school that works for our neighborhood.
You know, whatever we do to the school, is that it works for the neighborhood, because there are nine violations in code.
I know schools call them departures from code, but really it means it's illegal to build it, right? Nine of them.
And one of them, you know, or maybe there's a couple, I can't remember them, all off hand, involve parking and accessibility.
And I also teach. I also coached on this field, right there, Little League for my older son. And I've done that. I did T-ball. I've done it over the years, even when I haven't had kids myself. Even before I had kids, I did that. And there are some kids who were early in T- ball, and can't walk well. They've got all kinds of … difficulties, and the fact that they will have to park five blocks away just to get to the field.
And we're going (into this) intentionally knowing this and still moving forward with it.
So by the time I was able to give any feedback, it was the SEPA hearing, and I show up to give feedback, and it's against a team of lawyers, people who aren't even there to make the decision on what the school will be.
We're speaking with lawyers, so I'm a regular person, and I show up, and these lawyers are saying, no, everything's good, everything that we say, experts agree there will be absolutely no negative effects in the neighborhood....
So we're sitting there for two days. I literally, I think I lost years of my life just showing up to this, because I had the biggest headache, just so stressed out. This is the process. I will never wanna run for school board, and I will never vote again for any money for the schools. Like that's how I left feeling, you know, and I'm somebody who could be your biggest fan….I just got all fired up about this, because I feel like, hey…You could have involved us, then we could actually be part of the process.”
Harris said that enrollment at Alki Elementary started declining three years before the pandemic in 2017. Why? She didn’t say but according to the StatisticAtlas.com site 514 children live in the Alki neighborhood as of the most recent census. Factors might include charter schools, home schooling, and a decline in single family housing.
Some neighbors have suggested that Schmitz Park Elementary School, 1.4 miles away with 3.5 acres of space would make more sense for expansion. It’s currently being used as a facility for some classes but the primary campus is not in operation. There have been mentions of it being reactivated as Lafayette Elementary in the Admiral District is updated. But to date nothing firm has been announced.
Another question that has so far not been publicly discussed is emergency access to the area during busy times should people at the school or in the neighborhood require aid. Both roads into the school are essentially one lane.
Based on what Board Member Harris said, the process is now moving forward, though the latest comments from the Hearing Examiner have not been released as yet and changes could still be made.
For the neighbors, short of legal action to block it, which would be costly, or an unlikely change from SDCI, It looks to be on schedule.