West Seattle Blog… | 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 – [email protected] 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,

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