On November 3, 2020, the Seattle School District submitted a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) Determination of Non-Significance (DNS) regarding its plans to build a new Northgate Elementary School in Seattle’s north end. According to state law, if objections are made to a decision, a hearing examiner will hear these and make a final judgement. In December, objections were made by Chris Jackins, coordinator of The Seattle Committee to Save Schools, and a Zoom-hearing was scheduled.
[Full disclosure: On January 28, I participated in the hearing during which Northgate residents protested the Seattle School District’s decision to replace Northgate Elementary School with a much larger building. I was asked to represent the Duwamish Tribe’s interest in making sure area construction would not destroy whatever cultural material remains in place. The district had decided that its DNS did not warrant an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) which would have required more scrutiny.]
The present school south of Haller Lake occupies most of a block bounded by Corliss Avenue and First Avenue. N. and N. 117th and N. 120th. The building, designed by renowned Northwest architect Paul Thiry and built in 1956, adjoins a large playing field donated in the 1950s to the school by the Isabel family for school and community use and as a nature preserve. The School District plans to build a much larger school on this field and increase enrollment from 252 to 650. Work commences this summer; classes will continue in the old building until the new one opens in September 2023. The Thiry-designed school will then be demolished, and a smaller playground built in its footprint and opened in December, 2023.
The hearing began at 10 am with the hearing officer describing its purpose and the district’s plans to date. Several neighborhood residents testified that the planned school was too large for the setting, would eliminate street parking, trees, neighborhood views, and the much-valued park. They argued that expanded bus loading areas threatened safety and would increase noise and pollution.
It was noted that parent parking while waiting to pick up children, already congested, had been made more so by the Korean Catholic church across the street having banned parents parking in its lot because of repeated infractions. Others argued that tripling the school’s population while reducing open space made no sense. Staff parking planned for the new school was actually less than current levels. Loss of the park was a very great concern. Descendants of the family who sold the land to the district at a nominal fee said that the initial agreement had called for it to remain a community resource.
The District lawyer countered that all physical criticisms had been dealt with in the SEPA checklist. She noted that the new school would be only one story higher than the present single-story school, and that the sprawling complex would be set back from the street so as not to overwhelm. Great care had been taken to preserve at least some of the local trees. Anyway, the issues brought forward were zoning issues not relevant to the hearing. Worries about the large, internally lit billboard at the entrance were misplaced since it would be tastefully illuminated by red light.
Such euphemisms and casuistry are well-worn tools in the district’s public information kit. I noted that the new school is 42 feet high, three stories for sure, but the third didn’t count because it only housed machinery. Yes, parking might be a problem during back-to-school night, yet there was no mention about plays, fundraisers, and game nights when not only local parents but visitors would show up. Yes, the park would disappear, but a smaller play area would be maintained. Whether this would be gated in off hours no one seemed to know. The school does not let its students use the park because they cannot be seen from the school. (I taught middle school for 20 years and we teachers always had recess duty to watch students.) Is this a contract issue? The new school, we were told, would not be a mega school but an enlarged campus.
My chance to testify came in discussion about Native cultural materials at the site. In an earlier review, an archaeological service dug eight shovel pits in the area and concluded that none showed any significant artifacts (although an interestingly chipped piece of glass looked like a historic scraper, a tool used by native hunters who had frequented the area), or indicated cultural use. The Snohomish, Suquamish Stillaguamish, Tulalip and Muckleshoot Tribal groups, all recognized tribes, had been consulted, but, curiously, the District “forgot” to include the Duwamish (a tribe that remains deplorably unrecognized), whose ancestors had actually lived in the area.
I noted that the several shovel pits had surfaced charcoal and baked soils, indicative of human activity, and that several documented cultural sites, not to mention a complex trail system, were within blocks of the site. An archaeological trench showing soil horizons could reveal important data about repeated forest burns documenting human use. Such work would have been part of an EIS.
Cecile Hansen, the Chairperson of the Duwamish Tribe, gave her plea for the Tribe’s rightful involvement in the process. The examiner asked why the tribe had not spoken up earlier and what they would have done. I interrupted to ask the examiner if he had not heard my testimony — that I was there at the behest of the Tribe to give it. This brought profuse apologies and protests that the Duwamish’s not being included in earlier studies was an “oversight” that would not happen again. I noted that such “oversights” had been happening for the last 160 years and that such talk was cheap.
I was told my testimony prompted the District’s lawyer to hustle during lunch and get the original archeologist to give testimony. She said none of the shovel pits showed undisturbed soil, although she allowed that one showed evidence a “lens” of baked soil. This would seem a key finding, and she agreed that a trench showing soil horizons would have provided more detail than shovel pits. An observer was promised to be present during construction to make sure any cultural material will be documented. I wondered about the odds for this happening.
The meeting went on until 5:30 pm. To me it was sad and disturbing. Arborists had been called in earlier to determine if trees were healthy or worth saving, and I felt that trees elicited higher regard than neighborhood residents. The District’s attorney knew her stuff and had all the legal arguments lined up like ducks. The accepted memory of the park land’s being given so both school and community could share counted for nothing. (No explicit legal document? Forget it.) That a prominent Northwestern architect had designed the building about to be demolished? (So what?) That an appreciated and quiet park will be erased? (Go to another park.)
Many of those who testified and shared what their neighbors asked them to say have lived in the neighborhood for generations. Many were students at the school. They have dutifully paid their property taxes and worked to make their neighborhood a better place. Schools surely need improvement, and students deserve the best we can offer, but their education should be rooted in humane and vital communities and that consideration does not seem part of a plan. The deal was done; the hearing examiner dismissed the objections.
Underlying the controversy was an elephant in the room, namely that the School District expects the freed-up land to be rezoned from single family residences to apartments and condos. One more green family neighborhood will be replaced by crowding and anomie. I don’t live in Seattle anymore, but I am shocked by how relentless this drive is to bulldoze what makes it livable.