If you don’t think I am already completely insane for reading the entire land use code you’ll for sure think I’ve fallen off the edge of planet wonk for digging into the School Use Advisory Council (SUAC) process and it’s associated documents. But once again, land use is the center of some big time drama. All the news you might have heard about the Martin Luther King Elementary School in recent weeks is basically a land use issue covered by Chapter 23.78, which is where we happen to be in our journey through the code. Schools sit in the middle of all kinds of existing zoning and when they go off line the obvious question is “what uses can happen at that school now that it’s not a school anymore?” That brings us to the MLK School story.
As I have said before, schools matter to the urban agenda. They matter a great deal. The latest dust up about MLK gives fuel to the idea that our schools are bad, poorly run, and hives of corruption. Trust me, that isn’t true. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary most things at Seattle Schools are being managed by well intentioned folks who suffer, sometimes, from a bit of a missionary complex. When you feel you are doing God’s work it’s hard to take criticism and at times there can be a siege mentally in any school district. The MLK problem comes down to a relatively routine land use decision that has gotten caught up in the real problems at the district combined and stirred with lots of suspicion and previous bad experience.
Chapter 23.78 is mostly about the process that is used to figure out how to repurpose schools once they’ve gone off line. A lot of what I will say in this post is from personal experience as a Neighborhood Development Manager implementing neighborhood plans. We found ourselves dealing with schools a lot, over fields, buildings, renovations, and the decommissioning, sale, and reuse of school properties. Here’s how the process for reuse starts as outlined in this chapter.
A. The Seattle School District or other owner of a public school structure may apply for the establishment of criteria for nonschool use of an existing or former public school structure. Applications shall be made to the Director of the Department of Neighborhoods.
B. On receipt of an application, the Director of the Department of Neighborhoods shall convene a School Use Advisory Committee (SUAC) to secure the comments of the public and make recommendations for school use criteria for the school.
There are some pretty specific requirements about who gets to sit on the committee, and they including participation from people living within 600 feet of the school and the Parent Teacher Student Association. The committee is staffed by the Department of Neighborhoods and is specifically tasked to:
Develop criteria for structure and grounds use which are compatible with the surrounding community, including but not limited to: benefits to the community and public; population to be served; community access; use of the school grounds within the context of recreational and aesthetic resources of the neighborhood; mitigation of large structure bulk; traffic impacts: generation, circulation and parking; landscaping and maintenance of grounds; exterior appearance of the structure, including signing; noise; hazards and other potential nuisances; and
D. Recommend criteria to the Director of the Department of Neighborhoods no later than ninety (90) days after its first meeting unless a ten (10) day extension is requested, in writing, by a majority of the SUAC and granted by the Director of the Department of Neighborhoods.
This criteria established by the group is forwarded to the Director of the Department of Neighborhoods who publishes the recommendations which can be appealed to the Hearings Examiner. The criteria later serve
as the substantive criteria applicable to applications filed under the Master Use Permit process, Chapter 23.76, for uses locating in the public school structures and grounds. If the public school structure is demolished, the permitted uses and development standards of the underlying zone shall apply.
So that’s the process. And the MLK school reuse and sale went through the process in 2008, holding a number of meetings and issuing their recommendations in January of 2009. Reading through this (and no offense is intended) reveals the classic scenario of fretting about the school turning into something offensive to the neighborhood, worries about loss of access, and the hope that the school would remain, somehow, in the public domain with minimum impact. Worries about parking and who the tenant or new owner might be surfaced. All of this makes sense since when suddenly an island of school use in a mostly single family neighborhood comes on the market, neighbors might worry that there would be a radical shift in use.
Someone asked at one of the meetings “what is allowable in current zone.” One of the members of the committee responded by reading from “the code for SDS reuse and said they are required to go through SUAC process.” That means that, really, almost anything could be recommended as balanced against things like the “recreational and aesthetic resources of the neighborhood.” It’s a pretty open process but it’s balanced by the narrow nature of who serves on the committee (people who live 600 feet from the school, for example).
I can’t possibly know enough to render a verdict on the sale of the MLK school and whether it was a good choice to sell it to First African Methodist Episcopal Church. But I can say that I don’t see anything in the record that says that the process concluded that the MLK school be sold to the private Bush School. Here’s what Lynne Varner of the Times wrote, quoting a SUAC board member:
“We’d all decided that The Bush School looked like the best option after reviewing all of the proposals submitted,” Kelly-Rae said. She said the unanimous agreement was not only because of Bush’s higher bid, but its promise of athletic playfields in sync with community needs.
I’m just reading the code (maybe I am missing something), but from what I see in the written record and how the code proscribes the work of the SUAC, that entity simply can’t make that decision. Part of the problem here seems to be one of understanding and expectations of the SUAC process. I’ve hung around the code long enough to know that it doesn’t grant a lot of authority to review panels and groups to do things like sell real estate or determine use. Even the design review process is attenuated; it’s the Director and Council that ultimately make the most final and reaching decisions about use. Nevertheless, here’s what a Weekly story says about the sale:
This, despite the fact that the private Bush School was willing to pay several times as much as First AME, and the district desperately needed the money. DeBell told the Weekly that the district is not only interested in money but in preserving its properties for community uses, as it has done with vacated schools in the University District, Phinney Ridge, and West Seattle.
What does the code say about how much money should be raised by the sale of a property? Nothing. It does say that the committee make recommendations about the “criteria for structure and grounds use which are compatible with the surrounding community, including but not limited to: benefits to the community and public.” But benefits to the community and public are modified by the stuff before the colon, not a broad mandate to review bids.
Again, all I am doing is reading the code here and glancing over at how it’s involved in a current and unfolding, well, scandal in the Seattle School District. I’m not suggesting that people are blaming the SUAC process. But from what little I’ve read it appears that part of the stir is that there is a perception that there was some kind of consensus out of the SUAC that the school be sold to Bush. From what I read in 23.78 that isn’t possible. The credit and blame for sales rests, as it should, on elected officials who have to balance an array of factors–including but not limited to how much money they get from a sale–when closing and selling a school.
If you’re reading this and wondering what in the world I’m talking about, you can read Lynne Varner’s latest opinion piece which includes links to their coverage of the sale.