Chapter 23.79 Establishment of Development Standard Departure for Public Schools

Concord Elementary School in South Park

I am nearing the end of my reading of the code. Hard to believe but there isn’t much left to read or write about. There are a couple more stops here in Subtitle IV, Division 1, Administration. This chapter was substantially covered, although indirectly, when I wrote about public schools in residential zones. I talked a lot there about the departure process. So my comments on this chapter are going to be advice to the Seattle School District about their role as a community developer, especially in light of the financial situation out there for schools. School finance is seriously goofed up, and I will join the chorus of people saying we need wholesale reform. One way to start is reconceptualizing the urban public school.

The departure process reminds us that the School District is a developer, and the process maps how the school district navigates it’s way through land use while it renovates school buildings. A departure is a nice way of saying “an exemption from standards with conditions.” I kind of like the word because it sounds like what people do when they leave on a cruise, which makes the departure like a vacation from the drudgery of the code. Granting a departure gives loosening the code a more pleasant sound than “re zone” or “contract.”

Departures shall be evaluated for consistency with the general objectives and intent of the City’s Land Use Code, including the rezone evaluation criteria in Chapter 23.34 of the Seattle Municipal Code, to ensure that the proposed facility is compatible with the character and use of its surroundings.

The departure committee is formed in a similar fashion to the way the School Use Advisory Committee (SUAC), with people who live close by and other highly local interests represented. The departure committee is charged with evaluating how far the underlying design standards should be stretched. Height, bulk, and scale always play big here as does parking. Those things are to be evaluated according to

(1) Appropriateness in relation to the character and scale of the surrounding area;

(2) Presence of edges (significant setbacks, major arterials, topographic breaks, and similar features) which provide a transition in scale;

(3) Location and design of structures to reduce the appearance of bulk;

(4) Impacts on traffic, noise, circulation and parking in the area; and

(5) Impacts on housing and open space. More flexibility in the development standards may be allowed if the impacts on the surrounding community are anticipated to be negligible or are reduced by mitigation; whereas, a minimal amount or no departure from development standards may be allowed if the anticipated impacts are significant and cannot be satisfactorily mitigated.

This is fine so far as it goes, especially given that schools are generally located in single family zones. The educational needs of the school is to be “balanced with the level of impacts on the surrounding area.”

Greater departure may be allowed for special facilities, such as a gymnasium, which are unique and/or an integral and necessary part of the educational process; whereas, a lesser or no departure may be granted for a facility which can be accommodated within the established development standards.

The committee makes its recommendations to the Director about ninety days after its first meeting.

Here’s the advice part. But before I start on my advice let me acknowledge that schools are being over tasked in our society. The expectations of the problems schools can solve are way too high. Having said that, though, I think that schools are important, even if it’s all about perception. The bottom line is that schools affect our lives profoundly, and they can add to the built environment. The thing is that we need to adjust our expectations then demand that schools and school districts meet those new expectations.

I’m going to steal an idea from Chuck Wolfe at Myurbanist.com: we need EOD, Educationally Oriented Development. It’s a hippy dippy and socialist sounding idea. Not to mention it regurgitates the “takes a village to raise a child” meme (which, back in the 90s was called a book, not a meme). What do I mean by EOD? I guess it would look a lot like what I described with Planned Residential Developments and Puget Ridge Co-Houisng. Imagine if the school district started building to suit neighborhoods? What if schools, housing, libraries, and retail were all blended together? What if we built a 120 foot “tower” with retail on the ground floor, schools on the second and third floor, and housing on the rest? What would that do?

I guess what I am yearning for in the EOD idea is speaking to some of the big worries potential urban dwellers have. Where will my baby go to elementary school? The answer is in your new condo building, which, by the way, includes your three bedroom unit. I know this sounds insane and maybe it wouldn’t work. But if I was a billionaire I’d try it. The challenge is that we’d run into all kinds of politics about schools. Imagine if a developer built a school into her new development. And what if that school was a charter school that turned a profit (or had funds from operations)? Hay zeus, we’d open a can of worms.

So my advice is that we start to play with these ideas. Maybe we start with a high end Montessori school in a high rise on Capitol Hill and a hippy dippy co-op home school in a Planned Residential Development in Arbor Heights. Maybe we start at those extremes and push toward the middle, get more inclusive, public, and accountable. But the idea that schools and cities are separate ideas isn’t working. Let’s try and experiment with models that fold schools into our planning effort.

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