SCHOOLS: Decision awaited in challenge to Alki Elementary expansion/rebuild

(Rendering by Mahlum, from last year’s info packet for proposed zoning ‘departures’)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Seattle Public Schools says a decision is expected within days on a challenge to the plan to rebuild and expand Alki Elementary School.

The challenge focuses on the district’s determination that the project doesn’t need a full environmental impact statement (this “checklist” document was prepared instead). Three people appealed that, and a little-publicized two-day hearing was held on the challenge last month, before a hearing examiner working for SPS.

Several of the nearby residents who are opposed to aspects of the rebuild plan also brought their concerns to last Saturday’s community meeting held by local School Board director Leslie Harris at Delridge Library.

First, some backstory:

Alki Elementary is to be rebuilt with funding from the $1.4 billion BEX V levy approved by voters in 2019. The rebuild will expand Alki’s capacity to 542 students – 233 more than are attending now – by adding height as well as covering more of the site at 3010 59th SW, including the removal of on-site parking, despite the addition of more students and staff in an area near a major park that neighbors note has no dedicated parking lot. In order to build what’s planned, the district needs nine zoning exceptions – aka “departures” – and solicited community feedback last fall. As noted then (and detailed in this slide deck), the proposed departures are:

1) Greater-than-allowed building height (57 feet above “average grade plane,” which would be 25′ higher than allowed)
2) Reduced vehicular parking quantity (0 on-site spaces, 48 fewer than would be required)
3) Bus loading and unloading (no off-street loading, which otherwise would be required)
4) New curb cut to service area without vehicular parking
5) Increased curb-cut width (wider than would be allowed)
6) Increased curb-cut flare (wider than would be allowed)
7) Reduced bicycle parking (long-term) quantity (40 spaces, 38 fewer than would be required)
8) Amended bicycle parking performance standards (fewer weather-protected spaces than would be required)
9) Signage/changing-image sign (would be on north side of school, facing playground/park)

(Our archives show the request for so many zoning exceptions was a turnabout from what an SPS deputy superintendent said at a community meeting before the vote, suggesting that SPS usually sought to work within existing zoning.)

The Department of Neighborhoods led the review of the proposed Alki departures and issued a report last month, recommending they all be granted (see the report here). The final word on the project’s building/land-use permits, like other construction proposals, is in the hands of the city Department of Construction and Inspections, and expected soon. The district is counting on getting the go-ahead in time to start construction this summer – Alki Elementary’s students and staff are scheduled to move to the former Schmitz Park Elementary campus for two years starting in fall.

The people who came to Saturday’s meeting with Harris wanted to know when she had signed off on the plan and whether she and the board had any power to stop it. They said the rebuild had brought 40 to 50 neighbors “together” out of frustration about the plan and the process. One obseerved, “I got more notice for a Macy’s sale than for the illegal school they’re trying to build.” They were frustrated at not being invited into the process sooner, and by the fact the recent hearing – held as provided by the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) – had found the neighbors facing a team of lawyers working for the district. They “want this project deferred” so more community engagement can be pursued.

Harris observed that the “lack of family and community engagement” is one of the district’s biggest problems overall.

The project seems to be proceeding full speed ahead, observed another attendee, saying opponents are “livid” about that. In addition to the concern about inadequacy of parking for an expanded school, they suggest the expansion might not be necessary at all, given recent news about the district’s declining enrollment and increasing budget gap. They wanted to know when the district started noticing enrollment declining – “three years ago,” replied Harris – and who proposed doubling Alki’s size. Harris explained that, “This is what they call the prototypical elementary school,” where a larger school with more students could theoretically be given adequate staffing and other resources.

The neighbors’ contention is that, among other problems, the decisions so far have been based on faulty data – a traffic survey, for example, that was done during the pandemic (the departures report shows it was done on two days during one week in December 2021 and recorded no more than 58 percent of on-street parking occupied within 800 feet of the school). Parking is such an issue in the Alki area, the attendees pointed out, it’s one of only two areas in the city with distinct parking requirements (the Alki Parking Overlay requires 1 1/2 spaces be built per dwelling unit). And they said they’re not seeing an increasing number of families moving into the area – new housing consists of more, smaller townhouses and apartments. Harris countered that “we need to be able to build for 50 years into the future.” But, she said, “Personally I don’t like this plan, but I honestly don’t know if we’re too far down the road to change it.” Did Harris vote for it? the attendees asked. Probably, as part of a package, Harris replied. Can the board move money from a project like this to something else? The ability to move money is limited, Harris replied, they can’t just say “don’t spend that on Alki, put it (somewhere else).”

Finally, they asked for advice on how to make their case to the district. Show up at the board’s meetings, Harris suggested – but note that you have to sign up at 8 am Monday preceding the Wednesday board meeting, because spots are limited. (Here’s the agenda for nect meeting on March 15th.) Send email – goes to staff as well as board members.

Meantime, here’s where the process is overall: The hearing examiner was expected to make his recommendation from the SEPA appeal hearing this week. A district spokesperson told WSB, “Once the recommendation is received, it is reviewed by SPS legal and the superintendent. The superintendent then issues a decision, which is shared with the authorized appellants.” That’s not the last say on the project, though. Separately, once SDCI issues its land-use permit decision, it too is subject to appeal,

36 Replies to "SCHOOLS: Decision awaited in challenge to Alki Elementary expansion/rebuild"

  • Tethyr March 10, 2023 (7:31 am)

    Why don’t we just save the money by consolidating Alki with Lafayette elementary?  Those funds could go a long way in supporting the current funding gap. 

    • Orb March 10, 2023 (12:53 pm)

      In which current building? Both are nearly full. 

      • Al March 11, 2023 (8:51 am)

        Lafayette has an enormous property though, they could easily build a new building there with no disruption to existing school operations until it’s complete. Hell, it could even include parking. 

        • Sara March 12, 2023 (2:52 pm)

          Lafayette’s playground is owned by Seattle parks and rec, I’m not sure they can expand there. And they’re at capacity with a waitlist. Consolidating the two would require a school even bigger than Genessee hill

        • Tony March 12, 2023 (5:35 pm)

          Parking for cars over open space for kids to play? Get lost!

  • SLJ March 10, 2023 (7:50 am)

    It might be too late in the game for a major change, but with the district considering consolidating schools, this doesn’t make sense. Alki probably needs to be rebuilt anyway, but maybe just two stories would work. That would be cheaper and address some of the concerns of the community. 

    • Lynn March 11, 2023 (2:57 am)

      Consolidating schools saves money because one large school has lower administration costs than two small schools. For one thing, when you combine two elementary schools, you only have to pay one principal instead of two. The money for constructing schools comes from a different source (the capital fund) and does not affect the operating budget, where the deficit exists. 

      • Math Teacher March 11, 2023 (8:31 am)

        There are zoning rules for constructing schools and other buildings. Setting those rules aside requires a public need, not just a capital fund. There doesn’t appear to be a demonstrated public need for the rebuilt Alki to be three stories tall and have zero parking.  The Department of Neighborhoods recommendations, page 21, states “the Attendance Area for Alki Elementary is proposed to remain unchanged, therefore no additional buses are anticipated at this site, and the length of the on-street bus loading area is proposed to remain unchanged.” So this school design, on this site, with all the waivers requested by the District, does not accommodate the needs of future school consolidation. 

  • skeeter March 10, 2023 (9:14 am)

    What a mess.  We’re so accustomed to using our cars to get us everywhere that we have run out of room to store them so we have bitter conflicts like this.  The only answer is to charge money for on street parking.  It doesn’t matter if you are a resident, a teacher/staff, a visitor, etc.  If parking is free these conflicts will only increase.

    • Kyle March 10, 2023 (11:08 am)

      I think you’re missing the nuance with elementary school kids and the dismal busing service SPS offers. If you live within a mile of the school, that is considered the walk zone so there is no bus. Factor in geography, lack of sidewalks on some streets, possibly expanding the school, it is a no brainer that there will be a lot of car drop offs for this age group. 

  • Too big for the parcel March 10, 2023 (10:30 am)

    It is not too late to stop the process. The money is there for Alki Elementary’s rebuild. The main issue appears to be that the building design is too big for the amount of space that the district occupies. If a school for 500 students is needed it might be time to look for a different spot. According to the King County Parcel Viewer, Alki Elementary has one parcel of 61,279 sq ft while Schmitz Park has five parcels of varying sizes (193,211; 73,932; 44,866; 10,180; 6,590). The district needs places to hold students when rebuilding other schools (Schmitz Park) but as a good neighbor it should remodel or rebuild schools that fit in the current parcels that it owns without taking away public street use that it did not require before (e.g., no bus dropoff on site and no parking on site).

    • M March 10, 2023 (11:32 am)

      That’s a great idea.  They should re-build Schmitz Park and leave Alki as is. 

    • Elton March 10, 2023 (12:59 pm)

      The term “sunk cost fallacy” comes to mind :)

      • Why March 10, 2023 (2:20 pm)

        aright, I had to look it up! 

        What is the Sunk Cost Fallacy?

        The Sunk Cost Fallacy describes our tendency to follow through on an endeavor if we have already invested time, effort, or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits. ……………………………or from Wiki:  a sunk cost is a sum paid in the past that is no longer relevant to decisions about the future

  • JVP March 10, 2023 (11:41 am)

    Gotta love the Seattle NIMBY appeal everything drive all costs way up way of doing things. Sheesh.

    • AinthePNW March 11, 2023 (2:22 am)

      Nail on the head. Classic case of NIMBYism. They “support” schools, just not this one or one in their backyard. Good luck with the SEPA appeal. Their Checklist is one of the best that I’ve seen in a while. 

  • Gary March 10, 2023 (11:53 am)

    Gotta say, I feel for the neighbors on this one.

    That street is already a zoo, and so far no one’s provided compelling reasons to justify the exemptions, let alone the larger footprint.

    Reducing the required bike parking by almost 50% is especially weak when no parking spaces are provided.

    Accessibility question: When there are no parking spaces, how do they accommodate staff members with mobility issues?

  • Math Teacher March 10, 2023 (12:27 pm)

    Can you imagine a teacher trying to invite a guest speaker panel ?It will be unusually difficult to keep this school adequately staffed.  Turnover will be high, especially for lunchroom staff.Substitutes will avoid picking up jobs at this school. It will be more difficult to build family engagement activities. All IEP meetings will need to be held on Teams. A parent picking up a sick child will park in the bus zone.   

    • alchy March 10, 2023 (2:40 pm)

      The horrors.  
      We should pave a dedicated guest speaker panel parking lot.

      • Math Teacher March 10, 2023 (7:45 pm)

        I know it sounds silly, but my point is that the lack of parking at the school will be a significant barrier for many (not all) adults, including elderly family members, substitute teachers, low-paid lunchroom staff, classroom volunteers, and yes, certainly guest speakers.  Okay, so you can run the school without guests, and dedicated young able teachers will figure out how to park and walk, or cycle, but the district literally cannot fill current substitute teacher positions and lunchroom positions, and a lack of parking wont help. 

      • Steve March 10, 2023 (11:13 pm)

        The school district doesn’t have any additional property to pave at that site, even if it wanted to. Everything surrounding the actual building belongs to the parks dept, (maybe the small, paved, defacto play area directly in front belongs to SDOT, because it was formerly a “boulevard,” I’m not sure). Parks will not pave any green spaces. The point is this is the smallest school site in the city of Seattle, and it’s adjacent to the largest public park without onsite parking, also within a parking overlay district where variances are strictly forbidden for private construction..

  • Dog overpass March 10, 2023 (12:52 pm)

    An illegal school? Livid?  Come now!  It’s just a school.  

  • Build the school March 10, 2023 (1:09 pm)

    Trying to block the building of a public elementary school is about the most NIMBY thing imaginable.

    • Gary March 10, 2023 (3:50 pm)

      Now that you’ve got the name-calling out of your system, could you please explain why the zoning exemptions are necessary? That’s what people appear to be upset about.

    • Pinto March 10, 2023 (4:39 pm)

      Trusting a vastly dysfunctional district to build responsibly requires these kinds of community challenges. Especially since they’re trying to prevent input. Imagine curriculum night… hundreds of families looking for parking in the evening.
      Why not stay there and rebuild Schmitz Park elementary and then demolish Alki completely – then move to the new Schmitz park building -and turn Alki into more green space/community services?

  • SEADOG March 10, 2023 (4:08 pm)

    Fundamental principles of democracy include notice and opportunity to be heard.  From the summary of comments, it appears that the neighbors have concerns about adequate or none notice given as well as no consideration of neighbors voices being heard about potentially faulty data considered by the school district in making its decision.  It’s sad that the neighbors think it is too late when our democracy is meant to safeguards their rights against such abuses.  Have the neighbors considered a class action lawsuit to enforce their rights? If so, they might consider contacting Mark Lindquist law, an attorney I’ve read about in the Seattle Times who takes action against infringement of our constitutional rights by Seattle entities.

  • Alki Resident March 10, 2023 (4:46 pm)

    As someone who lives on the same street as the school, there just is no room for what they want to do.  Parking on the street is scarce and the street is essentially one-way as it is with parking on one side.  Already the traffic with drop off and pick up is crazy.  I honestly don’t know how people are going to drop their kids off safely – it’s already a zoo.  And during little league season, too.  People double park and do all sorts of crazy things.  Where are the employees going to park, particularly non-teachers?  I’m sure they don’t all live in the area.  We have one bus route that has a regular schedule over here and it’s not a convenient route for transfers.  It’s just not a well thought out plan and it seemed like it was done and decided before the residents were even notified.  Oh, and the lit up, electronic sign board?  In a residential area?  So dumb.

    • Don_Brubeck March 10, 2023 (6:31 pm)

      We need a neighborhood school that is rebuilt and sized right for our
      kids and our neighborhood. Only the School Board can change the course
      of this project.  

      The School Board decided  that there should only two sizes of elementary schools, allowing only two cookie cutter program designs. This may seem orderly, but It ignores the wide variety of existing site sizes and program sizes throughout the city. The School Board policy boxes the design teams into poor choices for Alki trying to fit 10 gallons of water into a 5 gallon hat. At 1.4 acres, Alki has the smallest site of all Seattle elementary schools. Schmitz Park, for example, has 7.5 acres.  A building sized for 540 students but holding only 309 students is grossly inefficient and wasteful. There are adverse consequences for the neighborhood andenvironment.  It is not too late for the School Board to change course.
      We need to elect School Board members with common sense who won’t pass the buck.

  • Neighbor March 10, 2023 (7:24 pm)

    The article and opinions fail to recall the numerous mailings, flyers, and signs in the neighborhood announcing this project a year ago and asking for neighborhood volunteers to join the design committee.

    • Why March 10, 2023 (9:27 pm)

      I live so close to the school I can practically reach out and touch it. I got ***one notice*** about this construction project.  There was a link printed on the card.  I tried to go to the link but it said something like “site not found” or something similar. I checked and double checked and triple checked:  nope, no errors! It was a bad link. No, wait. I forgot! I got one more notice about three weeks ago. It was a notice telling me the meeting about the school construction was cancelled. I have no idea what meeting was being cancelled because I never got that meeting notice in the first place.This is the gist of SPS’s outreach on this project. Many neighbors have similar, or worse experiences. I heard some folks got notices of meetings that were subsequently cancelled. Deadlines were set and then delayed and then changed again.  It’s been acknowledged that outreach & community involvement for this project was far below the norm.

  • Math Teacher March 11, 2023 (7:54 am)

    Earlier, @PINTO asked “Imagine curriculum night… hundreds of families looking for parking in the evening.”      The district KNOWS that simply wont work in this neighborhood.  Check out page 16 of the Department of Neighborhoods document says

    “the school will manage the number of families coming to the site by dividing all-school events across multiple evenings.”

      So, basically this means there will never, ever be a traditional curriculum night at the new Alki Elementary, only a grade-level night, and staff who teach multiple grades will be asked to attend one evening. Or imagine if a need ever arises for the principal to bring together the community on an urgent safety situation, and they have to split it across multiple evenings. Even a PTA fundraiser/dinner would have to be split across multiple evenings. This is not a NIMBY issue, this is an issue that will negatively impact students and families.  And it’s complicated; opening the school to multiple evening events will require an Assistant Principal and custodian on sight every evening that the events will occur.   So the district will have to budget for an AP, regardless of the actual number of students assigned to Alki, or not hold whole-school events? Or will they disregard the mitigation that has justified the departure?

    • AinthePNW March 11, 2023 (2:25 pm)

      The issues raised by the neighborhood are entirely NIMBY issues – especially parking. West Seattle has this misplaced idea that they expect to find an on-street parking space at the exact location and time that they want it. Sorry to burst everyone’s bubble, but in most large US cities parking is much more complicated, time consuming, and costly. Also, how is it that other cities can build urban schools on very similar sites without any parking and they functional properly? For example, Washington, DC generally doesn’t build any parking at their elementary schools. Guess what, the world continues to spin and everyone has gotten used to it.

      • Math Teacher March 11, 2023 (7:20 pm)

        @AinthePNW So, just to be clear, do you advocate that Seattle’s zoning rules be changed to match other cities? Or do you feel that the existing zoning laws should be ignored?  Or perhaps you simply support the District’s application, and believe that it’s fine in this special case that Department of Neighborhoods recommend these special variations, with the described mitigations?   And, also just to be clear here, do you expect the school to implement the recommended mitigations with fidelity, such as spreading all-school events across multiple evenings? Or, since parking is no big deal, should District plan to ignore those ideas once the school is built?  

  • Why March 11, 2023 (4:45 pm)

    Washington DC  has a rapid transit system that is probably the best in the USA, probably better even that NYC’s and Chicago’s.  Most major international cities have rapid transit systems that can transport anyone within 5 blocks of most any urban destination, with trains, buses, trams and subways coming in every 3-5 minutes (7 at most) during drive time.  Guess what?  Seattle doesn’t. Alki certainly doesn’t.  People who live in the hood know  this.  It must also be a  NIMBY issue that Alki is one of only two designated parking overlay districts in Seattle.

  • Alki Teacher March 16, 2023 (5:27 pm)

    I am a teacher at Alki Elementary. I am also on the school’s Design Advisory Team for the new school. I just want to note that EVERY concern mentioned in this thread was brought up numerous times to both the design team and Seattle Public Schools. Time after time, the concerns were ignored or dismissed as being trivial or inconsequential to the process. The designers AND district officials told the staff that it was considered “normal” within Seattle School sites for teachers and visitors to expect parking up to 850 feet away from the building entrance. That’s simply ridiculous. I walked the radius of the building, and there is no measurable parking within that distance. Imagine carrying school supplies in and out each day….. also, the school staffs’ top 2 priorities in the design were parking and a safe drop off /pick up area.  The design team asked for these priorities nearly two years ago…. Neither were included in the “final” plans. 

  • Bill March 23, 2023 (8:47 am)

    I suppose that with that list of departures, SPS will be happy to require that ALL employees take public transit to work every day.  Also that all students will live within the 1 mile “no bus” radius, since there won’t be a bus zone, and also that parents cannot come to the school inter cars, but they too must walk.   

Sorry, comment time is over.