Headin' south

New school headquarters is blasted as inaccessible and unnecessary.

To reach the Seattle School District's new $43.2 million headquarters site, drive past Bulbman Electric, Duke's Truck Repair, Drivelines Northwest, and Pacific Coast Feather Company. Slow down. Turn at the tire store. Stop at the railroad tracks. It's the Monster Mansion on the right.

In contrast to the gritty warehouse surroundings zoned for heavy lifting, the site is destined for a more cerebral mission as the heart and symbol of Seattle's school system. The district wants to buy, gut, and renovate the creepy, boarded-window, three-story former Terminal Annex post office facility near Fourth Avenue South and South Lander Street, turning it into a handsome, landscaped central administration complex called the School Support Center.

It would be home to 735 mostly white-collar workers, save millions of dollars through consolidation of far-flung school operations, the district says, and fulfill the big "team" headquarters dream of late schools superintendent John Stanford.

But with it comes $26.7 million in new district debt, a debate over land use, and an unfortunately commanding view of the hulking Rabanco garbage and recycling center across South Lander.

"Try using a phone booth in that area," says school district critic Chris Jackins, referring to the clatter of Lander traffic and the adjoining Burlington Northern Santa Fe main rail line. "You can't hear yourself speak."

Jackins and others see the project as an unnecessary and grandiose intrusion on the longtime industrial/manufacturing neighborhood, concerns that are set to be aired at next week's Seattle City Council meeting. Council members are being asked to approve the project by excepting the district from zoning restrictions. A council committee earlier rejected the variance request, worried about eroding the shrinking Duwamish industry corridor. As council member Peter Steinbrueck put it, "We have to do everything we can to preserve industrial lands in this city, which are an endangered species."

A community group, the Manufacturing Industrial Council, is also opposed to a separate part of the district's plan that calls for selling off the Logistics Center, a low-slung schools office/garage facility a mile away. The several-acre site could be turned into an expanded parking lot for the adjoining Costco warehouse store, claiming even more industrial land.

A city hearing examiner has ruled the district can do as it wishes with that property. But school officials are now quietly proposing a compromise. Costco could slightly expand its parking lot (part of which it already leases from the district) but the district would designate the remainder of the Logistics site for continuing industrial/commercial use.

"We're hoping that adding this covenant will help the [headquarters] project fly," says Dan Graczyk, district logistics director. "Frankly, the post office is the only site that does it for us."

Even if that point is resolved, a new concern has cropped up. At least one council member is questioning whether district officials are really "centralizing" administration operations, as they claimed when applying for the zoning waiver.

Because the project's planned office space (189,000 square feet) greatly exceeds the zoning maximum (50,000 square feet), the school district had to meet four criteria to gain the waiver. One required the district to show the location was needed to furnish services it couldn't furnish elsewhere.

To that end, the district told the city it required the postal site to provide "a more accessible and central location for parents and teachers needing assistance from central support function." In addition to offices, the 359,000 square foot, 12-acre facility will include meeting hall, repair shops, warehouse space and a central kitchen to prepare school meals.

In reality, however, the new headquarters will be located in the bottom third of the city, five miles from the district's current small, aging (but, geographically, centrally located) headquarters in Lower Queen Anne near Seattle Center. While the Queen Anne office is accessible from numerous frequently running bus routes, the Lander site is almost completely unserved by public transportation.

For thousands of parents, teachers, and others in the north and central section of the city, that translates into a site that is less—not more—accessible and will be central only for those who live or attend school below Jackson Street and have a car.

The district, according to a project background paper, thinks centralizing "improves public convenience by allowing a parent, concerned citizen and personnel to have all support services in one location." But the Lander consolidation means the end of district neighborhood satellite operations such as student enrollment services (now provided at nine schools around the city—Chief Sealth, West Seattle, Ingraham, Sharples, Rainier Beach, Meany, John Marshall, Ballard, and New Options on Queen Anne), teen-parenting and student assignment services (currently housed near Green Lake), and student assistance/counseling service (now in the North End).

Graczyk says centralizing will mean more convenient one-stop shopping, for example, by parents who need to enroll new students and get a school-site assignment, which sometimes requires two visits at separate locations. Still, the two drives were shorter than a long one to Lander, and critics such as Jackins wonder if the district plans to relocate some services only to justify the project. "It's just wrong to move some of these operations out of the neighborhoods," he says. "By the way," he adds, "this will be a mostly open [partitioned] office system at the new site. I think parent conferences and other meetings will be less private, too."

A new media center, special education services, teacher training operations, the superintendent's offices, district computer services, and nearby logistics operations will also be shifted there.

"Did anyone ever look at a map?" says a council source, noting the Department of Design, Construction and Land Use and a hearing examiner have already approved the variance. "They're moving due south, not central."

Adds critic Jackins of the Seattle Committee to Save Schools: "Some consolidation is a good thing. But do you really want everything at one spot? Is it really more efficient to, say, distribute meals district-wide from a central location?"

It's unclear what effect the compromise offer and the centralizing question might have on the council's upcoming vote. As part of the quasi-legal review under way, district and council officials are not allowed to discuss the plan with each other. The district has now taken to calling the site "relatively central" and argues it would at least be moving towards the center of school population.

"Some people will have to drive farther, true," concedes Graczyk in an interview. "But where do the kids live? Proportionately, more of them live in the south part of the city." A review shows more Seattle schools operating in the north and central part of the city—which the headquarters would be moved away from. Of the district's 63 elementary schools, for example, only 27 have south Seattle addresses. But Superintendent Joseph Olchefske insists that school population-wise, the postal site is "the center of gravity for our district" and growth is concentrated around it.

The $43.2 million Support Center, planned for a September 2001 opening, would be financed in part by $26.7 million in bonds the district plans to repay through an estimated $2 million a year in canceled leases, along with the projected $16.5 million sale of four existing buildings. Officials say another benefit of the plan is the closing or consolidating of 25 existing administrative offices and facilities which could free up space for instructional use throughout the city.

Jackins thinks the revenue figures are too optimistic and feels the district has existing space available (including 18 closed or leased school sites or the handy nearby Logistics property) for a smaller, less costly headquarters. "They've shown no real need to buy more land when they've got it in excess," says Jackins. He'd rather see money spent directly on schools.

The district's Graczyk vows the new center will be cost-effective. But it needs a go-ahead soon. "We've been working on a centralized operation since 1992," Graczyk says. "This is the place. And the time."

But Jackins recalls, "They once said they just had to have Sand Point, too," referring to the district's earlier attempt to set up operations at the old Navy base. But the city and the neighbors objected, and "they learned to live without it," he says.

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