By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
By Monday afternoon’s deadline for appealing the city decision to grant nine zoning exceptions for the Alki Elementary School rebuild, six appeals had been filed with the city Hearing Examiner, which today ordered them consolidated into one case.
Two hours after the appeal deadline, Seattle Public Schools discussed the project at an in-person community meeting, which turned contentious as frustrated neighbors at times shouted their concerns about some of those zoning exceptions, particularly those related to transportation, including the removal of all on-site parking.
We reported last month on the city’s recommendation that the zoning exceptions – formally called “departures” – be approved. The district first mentioned in an online public meeting last June that it would seek departures, and a request for public comment went out last fall. However, the usual public process was truncated because of pandemic-related policies, and that’s part of what neighbors are upset about, saying they didn’t have a chance to participate in the design process or, later, to have their concerns heard.
So last night, after listening for an hour to district director of capital projects Richard Best, architect Becky Hutchinson of Mahlum, and transportation consultant Marni Heffron, they did what they could to be heard, at times shouting their disagreement with the project team’s contentions.
After Best gave an overview, saying the design was meant to support the district’s focus on “student outcomes” among other things, he yielded the microphone to Hutchinson, who tried to stress the site’s status as a “community hub” (it’s adjacent to Alki Community Center, which is not part of the project, another point with which some community members take issue, and Alki Playfield).
Hutchinson said the school’s entrance is moving from the west side to the north side because most students come from that direction. Inside, she said, the new school will have “support spaces” and “shared learning spaces” that the current one lacks. As had been the case during last year’s online meeting, she referred to the entrance as a “front porch.”
The new school’s added height, the subject of one of the zoning departures, gives it a third story, and that’s where the library will be.
Back on the ground floor, preschoolers will “have their own front door,” on the side with the loading area (another point of concern).
You can see all the design slides in the full meeting deck here; they segued into what the district called FAQ, attempting to address some of the previously aired concerns. First one – why no on-site parking? The district’s answer was that SPS prioritizes educational programs over uses for private vehicles, and showed a table of other schools with little or no parking (none in West Seattle):
The 100-page presentation deck had 17 pages of slides aimed at trying to explain the rationale for building with no on-site parking. It went through several scenarios in which, the project team said, some parking might have been possible if there were other dramatic changes to the project – such as, 7 spaces if they removed the preschool area and outdoor-learning space, or 29 spaces if they built to four stories instead of the currently planned three.
Heffron, who said her firm has been working with SPS nearly 30 years, said her firm had used a “full slate of parking and traffic analyses” including “historic aerial photos” and on-street surveys to come up with the conclusion that the neighborhood had enough parking to accommodate needs during school hours. Events, however, as noted in the departure-discussion process, should be split so the school would never have more than 400 people on site; Heffron contended “that also is done at many other schools” but didn’t name any. She insisted, “We believe that this like many other schools can operate just fine with no on-site parking.”
Next in what the district presented as FAQ was, “how does the new design prioritize safety?” The no-parking plan came into play here too, with slides recapping “best practice guidelines” for school traffic safety including a de-emphasis of “private car infrastructure.”
The answer to this question also showed interior school features, such as the reception area:
The third FAQ was another thorny issue: “Will the new school affect neighbors’ views?” The district’s answer was, for the neighbors uphill to the south, yes, but not much.
The final FAQ was “why are you so intent on improving Alki given its small site?” Answer: The site’s status as a “hub” among other locations of interest made it value-added, in their view.
Throughout the meeting, the district had been collecting written questions for the project team to read aloud and answer. First one: “Who is the instigator for this project?” “Seattle Public Schools,” replied Best. (It was proposed for BEX V levy funding in 2018.)
Next, a person who said they live half a block from the school and didn’t get notification of the meeting. Best said postcards were sent out, albeit “late,” and noted that principal Mason Skeffington sent notice to the “Alki community,” plus the announcement was published in community media such as WSB. Another question made a similar accusation, suggesting the rebuild was a “secret project.”
Then a question asking if it was “wise to enlarge a school close to so much crime,” given incidents such as the recent murder just across the playfield. Principal Skeffington said they’re dealing daily with safety and security, and that the rebuild will upgrade the school to the newest technology. A related question followed, asking more specifically about safety designs for intruders or even “active shooters.” Best said all schools are designed with Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design principles and that those are factored into the design.
Will the school really be done by the start of the ’25-’26 year, considering that the other major local BEX V project – expanding West Seattle Elementary – has taken an extra year? That was in large part because of the “five-month concrete strike,” Best replied.
What’s the “current diversity” at Alki? The principal said it’s 65 percent white, 15 percent multiracial, and didn’t have the breakdown for the other 20 percent.
How will SPS fund increased operational cost for an expanded Alki? More students bring more funding, Best said. And, he added, a larger school allows the district to offer some support programs that are not available at smaller schools.
How is recess planned into the design? It’ll be a lot like the way it works now, said Hutchinson. In response to a related question, though, the project team said they hadn’t worked out with Parks exactly how the play areas north of the school would be configured. (That came up again in the attendee Q&A period.)
What about access for emergency vehicles on 59th SW, which is already tight? Heffron said the current system works and they don’t expect “major changes.” She also said they “don’t anticipate more buses” despite the potential for to increase from ~300 to 500+ students because “there’s capacity on current buses” and they don’t plan to expand the attendance area.
Attendees started loudly disputing district contentions during the next question about the entrance for preschoolers. Where are parents going to park to walk the littlest students to their entrance? they asked, along with why the entrance is adjacent to a loading area. “You are going to have injuries!” someone shouted. Others repeatedly insisted “we’re not against a school here” but they are against the dramatic expansion.
Next – how is the district addressing noise from the “mechanical penthouse” planned atop the building? Best said acoustic-engineering experts are in charge of that.
Then, a question about the truncated Department of Neighborhoods process that led to the initial recommendation for approval of the zoning departures. The comment time during that process was extended, the district pointed out. But, contended a neighbor, notices were only sent to people extremely close by. And another took issue with the departure rationales going against the public comments the city had received. “You gave them nothing.”
Shortly thereafter, another clash over the lack of parking, and what data Heffron used. She said they had used “a lot of historic traffic data from before the West Seattle Bridge closed” and in-person studies, boosting the count to try to compensate for the pandemic-driven changes in road/parking. An attendee countered that the study did not take important factors into account. The project team repeated that “many” schools don’t have parking for parents, and attendees countered that – as noted above – those schools aren’t in West Seattle.
That issue reasserted itself a few minutes later, with attendees contending that parents don’t want their kids walking to school, and that doubling the school’s size “isn’t going to work.” Having just one ADA space across the street also won’t work, neighbors said.
Is it really safe to locate the preschool entrance near the loading area? Best said there’ll be separation, and that drivers making deliveries “will not be there when students and families are picking up and dropping off (students).”
Many questions obviously remained when Best ended the meeting close to the planned 9 pm. He promised they would be answered “on the website,” though no time frame was mentioned.
On another matter of time frame, with appeals filed as mentioned at the start of this report, the city Hearing Examiner will need to set a date for a hearing. The project is currently expected to start construction this summer; how, or whether, the appeal process will affect that remains to be seen.
| 72 COMMENTS