Chapter 23.51 B Public schools in residential zones: a radical departure

On to 51 B, public schools.

I’d argue that they might very well be that the single most important thing we could do to drive people into cities would be to make urban schools the premier educational institutions in the country. Imagine this conversation happening:

Parent A: Where do you live?
Parent B: I live in Seattle. How about you?
Parent A: I live in Issaquah.
Parent B: Oh my God! I heard the schools there are awful. That’s why we moved to Seattle.
Parent A: I know, I know. We’re going to move to the city before Johnny gets to high school. The schools in Issaquah just aren’t safe.
Parent B: Yeah, and the test scores are terrible out there. But hey, at least your kids aren’t going to school on Mercer Island!
Parent A: Mercer Island! Oh no. I don’t know how those people live!

Good schools in the city and all our sustainability problems are solved, right? Well, probably not. But I think it is hard to understate the powerful perceptions that are attached to urban schools.

While Babarino and Epstein might have made quaint characters in a 1970s sit-com, parents bristle at the thought of experimenting with their child’s future by sending them to what appear to be chaotic settings. And even though it isn’t fair, urban schools carry lots of baggage. Never mind that most of the incidents of serious violence take place in suburban schools.

While urbanists often busy themselves with design, planning, and the relationship between transportation and land use, education is going to have to take an equally important place in the pantheon of the gods of the Good City. And numbers matter less than addressing the perceptions and feelings parents have about schools. Simply improving test scores isn’t going to cut it. School safety, discipline issues, and the desire for neighborhood schools are crucial. As long as parents want to send their children to the world’s best elementary school just down the street, choices about where families live are going to be driven by intangible issues related to education.

Let’s look at the code.

Public schools in all single family and multifamily zones are subject to the following development standards unless otherwise indicated:

A. New public schools or additions to existing public schools and accessory uses including child care centers that meet the applicable development standards of this Chapter 23.51B are permitted outright.

B. Departures from development standards may be permitted or required pursuant to procedures and criteria established in Chapter 23.79, Establishment of Development Standard Departure for Public Schools.

Again with the references. But simply put public schools are allowed in residential zones provided they meet a number of standards that would sound familiar. Heightbulkenscale is a monster that applies no less to public schools than to mixed use development. Issues like roof lines, curb cuts, and lighting all play into the single family concerns about disrupting peaceful enjoyment of yard and parking space.

Any departure from those standards, which include lot coverage and height limits, requires the intervention of something called a Development Standard Advisory Committee, otherwise known as “a Departure Committee.” The ins and outs of the departure committee, its formation, and function can be found in Chapter 23.79 of the code.

As it happens, I served on a departure committee back in the 1990s. It was so long ago I can’t find any record of our activities on the internets. Most of the records are probably in a archive box somewhere. But I served as a community representative on the departure committee for the renovations at Concord Elementary School in South Park.

Concord Elementary School

The departure process is a lot like design review, except that the panel reviewing the proposal is assembled specifically for the project. The departure committee is tasked with recommending

the maximum departure which may be allowed for each development standard from which a departure has been requested. Minority reports shall be permitted. The advisory committee may not recommend that a standard be made more restrictive unless the restriction is necessary as a condition to mitigate the impacts of granting a development standard departure.

As a neighborhood person I was looking for impacts that the departure might have on the surrounding neighborhood and community and, especially, how those impacts might be mitigated.

If memory serves the issue involved parking and allowing a departure for less parking so that the gym could be improved and expanded. Less on site parking is a pretty big departure. So we asked for curbs, gutters, and sidewalks.

Yes, it’s true. I did exactly what I call out in my recent Crosscut article: played politics with sidewalks.

Here’s what we had:

8th Avenue South

Here’s what we wanted:

South Henderson Street

Some of us suggested that in exchange for the departure for the gym (which the community really wanted) and parking impacts, we’d require curbs and sidewalks all around the school.

The problem was the lack of a place to put the water. I don’t remember exactly how it played out. But we didn’t get what we asked for.

7th Avenue South

Usually, curbs and gutters would be pricey all by themselves. But South Park suffered from having a high water table and not much infrastructure. Much of the area used to be farmland and all the extra water was part of the reason why. That might make good farming soil, but it creates lots of drainage and water issues.

South Park has always had issues with water build up and flooding. At the time we had neighbors who testified to having flooded out basements. We pushed as hard as we could on the school district to put the full sidewalks and drainage into their budget for the school. It wasn’t going to happen. If it came down to us holding back our approval for the departure they’d just make the gym smaller and put the parking on site.

If memory serves, we backed off, and, I thought, settled for rolled curbs. But I don’t see any rolled curbs out there now. It kind of looks like it did then. But my memory might be wrong.

Part of the reason I understand the politics of sidewalks is that I was that neighborhood person who equated sidewalk with how much political capital we had at City Hall. It helped to show the pictures of kids walking in the street or ponds of water near the school to make our point that South Park was being excluded from City investment because it was a small and poor neighborhood.

In any event, it left us (or me at least) with a bad feeling about the school district. And many neighborhoods feel similarly squashed by big capital projects being completed by the school district. We all love better schools, including investment in school buildings and facilities. But often the district would let their frustration at what seemed, to them, as ingratitude when neighbors complained about impacts.

I can see both sides. But the Seattle Public Schools and urbanists should partner in cases like this. Perhaps this is happening. My departure experience was a long time ago. It’s even more important now, however, for everyone to help make schools better including the way they’re permitted and built. This means density, transit oriented development, and education reform (especially school finance reform) need to all be part of the urbanist platform in Olympia and at City Hall.

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4 Responses to Chapter 23.51 B Public schools in residential zones: a radical departure

  1. Pingback: If you love cities you’ll vote for the Families and Education Levy | Seattle's Land Use Code

  2. Pingback: Chapter 23.79 Establishment of Development Standard Departure for Public Schools | Seattle's Land Use Code

  3. Chad Newton says:

    School District quality, defined by average test scores and “safety,” are almost entirely an outcome of school family income. Wealthy suburbs have “good” schools, poor suburbs and urban neighborhoods have “bad” schools. As soon as more well-off parents send their kids to Seattle Public Schools, a chain of events begins which leads to an improved perception of the schools. It won’t happen automatically, but as a result of a lot of volunteer work and political pressure. And I believe this process has begun in Seattle and other urban school districts. In fact, I can already imagine overhearing this conversation:

    Parent A: Where do you live?
    Parent B: I live in Seattle. How about you?
    Parent A: I live in Renton.
    Parent B: Oh my God! I heard the schools there are awful. That’s why we moved to Seattle.
    Parent A: I know, I know. We’re going to move to the city before Johnny gets to high school. The schools in Renton just aren’t safe.
    Parent B: Yeah, and the test scores are terrible down there. But hey, at least your kids aren’t going to school in Highline!
    Parent A: Highline! Oh no. I don’t know how those people live!

  4. Pingback: South Park then and now | Seattle's Land Use Code

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