THE SEATTLE SCHOOL District's shiny new central headquarters planned for a grimy industrial zone may be our next convention center skybridge, our next parking garage giveaway, our next waterfront grain terminal—the next in a line of costly civic mistakes peculiar to Seattle. But, as opponent Chris Jackins points out, even if it turns out to be a dirty rotten mistake, the district can't complain about it—literally.
An aptly named gag order is written into the special agreement proposed between the district and the Seattle City Council that allows the mostly white-collar office building to rise in the middle of the Duwamish industrial neighborhood. Referring to the constant noise from rail and truck traffic and to industrial odors that are sure to waft into the $43 million headquarters, the agreement states the School District "will not object" to nor lobby for changes or restrictions to its surrounding environment. No matter how bad conditions might become, not objecting includes not even "encouraging the media to call for changes in city policy." Evidently the School District was so anxious to make a deal that it conceded its constitutional right to dissent.
A City Council committee hearing this week is the first new step toward approval of a tailored zoning code amendment to allow the district's takeover of the former Terminal Annex postal facility on South Lander Street. To settle a lawsuit brought by the district (after the council rejected the plan 7-2 last September), City Hall is sure to approve the exception, even though to critics it opens the door to further gentrification of the shrinking SoDo/Duwamish industrial base. Council members, who only months ago found the project illegal and even illogical, now think it's a wonderful idea.
"I believe," says council member Jan Drago, who heads the committee overseeing the project, "it ushers in a new era and fundamentally changes the relationship between the city and the School District. It includes many objectives but the most important being increasing access by the community to school facilities during nonschool hours—returning the schools to 'community schools.'"
However, Jackins, of the Seattle Committee to Save Schools, says little has changed since the council's original thumbs-down vote, calling the ongoing public hearing process a formality since an agreement has already been reached. Though the council feels it has exacted important concessions from the district, the basic project remains the same. "The council previously, correctly, applied the zoning rules to note that the project would not be a proper use of the site," Jackins says.
So why is it proper now? Jackins' objections include concerns that the district is abandoning a valuable current headquarters site in Lower Queen Anne, that the council is promoting a poor choice and bad law, and that the deal sets a precedent for more tailored exceptions to the zoning code (due to a loophole in the proposed ordinance—discovered by Jackins—that would have opened the zone up to an invasion of office projects, the law already had to be rewritten). The district also will take on $26.7 million in debt for 25 years, without a vote of the public.
However, there's likely no derailing this deal, and Jackins unfortunately expects to someday say "I told you so." But look around, Chris. It's the Told-You-So City.
Read Rick Anderson's September '99 report on the School District's new headquarters.