The Time Is Ripe To Build A School In Downtown Seattle


Some of us at The Urbanist have discussed highlighting the role of education and improving Seattle public schools as a central plank of Seattle urbanism looking into the future. We aim to bring more articles on that topic. Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit of a long-delayed, much-anticipated prospect of a Downtown school. The time may finally be ripe.

Seattle Booming, Most Of All Downtown

Seattle is booming right now. In 2014, Seattle added 8,311 housing units and a similar amount in 2015. That level of development has translated into population growth in the neighborhood of 60,000 since the Seattle’s 2010 Census total of 608,660. Looking ahead, 21,600 units are in the pipeline, and even more are expected by 2020, as Mark Stiles reports: “Of the nearly 58,000 units developers hope to open between 2016 and 2020, almost 36,000 are in Seattle.”

Seattle looks like it’s on a path of robust growth. In fact, even adding upwards of ten thousand housing units per year still has not appeared to satiate demand judging by prices. Rent increases are slowing but make no mistake: Seattle rents are still climbing (recent number was 4.6% year to year) and vacancies are still low (3.5%). It would seem Seattle could support even more housing growth than it has experienced.

Growing School Age Population Too

With all that population growth, is Seattle school age population also growing? CityLab recently ran a piece suggesting we’ve reached “peak Millennial” and cities will actually shrink again. The argument goes that demography tells us the next cohorts coming of age simply aren’t as large (although the role of immigration wasn’t discussed). Moreover, the line of reasoning goes that young people will surely move to the suburbs when they start raising families in search of better schools.

While I think talk of shrinking cities is overblown (and based on bad number crunching), Seattle certainly should seek to strengthen its schools to retain and attract more residents seeking to raise families. Even as it stands, our public school enrollment is growing.

Enrollment has spiked dramatically.
Enrollment has spiked dramatically starting around 2009. (Seattle Public Schools)

The enrollment spike doesn’t seem to be a blip in the radar, but rather a building long-term trend. For confirmation of this, look to birth statistics. Resident births have also been creeping up, even as Seattle maintains a reputation of a city that raises dogs and cats rather than humans.

Resident births are trending up.
Resident births are trending up. 2014 was the most fecund year in recent memory. (Seattle Public Schools)

Importantly, the enrollment growth has been strongest in Downtown Seattle, making the need for infrastructure even more acute.

Screen Shot 2015-02-28 at 10.56.31 PM
Downtown is pulling away from the rest of the district in enrollment growth.

Building A School Downtown

People have been talking about building a Downtown elementary school for quite a while, and the Downtown core continues to lead Seattle in housing growth while having no school. Influential groups like the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) have been working toward that end. It’s time to get it done.

Seattle's downtown has been a growth engine. (Dupre+Scott)
Seattle’s Downtown has been a growth engine. (Dupre+Scott)

Skeptics of a Downtown school often contend Downtown residents do not want families. They are busy professionals or retirees. Or if they do have kids, they would be wealthy enough to put them in private school. The data does not support that, as Marc Stiles reported:

According to the DSA, there’s a strong need for a school downtown. The group points to demographic data that show downtown has been the city’s fastest-growing neighborhood for nearly 25 years and that the population of nearly 60,000 has the highest concentration of 25- to 34-year-olds in Seattle, a good predictor of future families.

In addition, more than 70 kindergarteners living downtown enrolled in Seattle Public Schools in 2012, up from 34 in 2007. Three years ago, 265 children were born to parents who lived downtown, compared with 110 babies born to downtown parents in 2001. Yet downtown, which the DSA said is the city’s most populous neighborhood, is one of few areas without a neighborhood school.

In January 2015, the school board competed in an auction for Seattle’s branch of the Federal Reserve Bank (the Fed moved to Renton in 2008), which seemed the perfect size for an elementary school intended to serve about 600 students. Unfortunately, the $6 million budgeted for the property wasn’t even close to the winning bid of $16 million that real estate developer Martin Selig ultimately paid. Selig now has an ambitious plan to build a 29-story glass tower on top of the six-story building. The sale indicates how expensive competing for Downtown real estate could end up being for Seattle Public Schools.

Martin Selig plans to keep the historic Federal Reserve Bank as the base and building a 29-story glass office tower over the top.
Martin Selig plans to keep the historic Federal Reserve Bank branch as the base and building a 29-story glass office tower over the top. (Perkins + Will)

The fact that Seattle Public Schools budgeted $6 million for land shows the school district is ready to get the ball rolling. It turned out it wasn’t nearly enough money, but that amount of money should be enough to leverage some piece of property, perhaps one owned by the City or a public utility maybe.

If only the City or perhaps some benevolent private citizen would step up and offer the school district a property at a reasonable price. We think there may be opportunity for the City to build a mixed-income tower with a joint middle school and elementary school at the base. This would make best use of precious Downtown core land owned by the public. It would lessen the school’s cost to the school district while also meeting the need for more affordable and workforce housing in the city.

Imagine it: a Downtown school and a Downtown apartment where a person living on a teacher’s salary could live in. It’s possible.

No schools exist in the central core. The closest to Downtown is Bailey Gatzert Elementary School to the east or John Hay Elementary School to the north and atop Queen Anne Hill. Building a joint elementary and middle school would solve that discrepancy. (Seattle Public Schools)
No schools exist in the central core. The closest to Downtown is Bailey Gatzert Elementary School to the east or John Hay Elementary School to the north and atop Queen Anne Hill. Building a joint elementary and middle school would solve that discrepancy. (Seattle Public Schools)

Whatever the solution, the City will have to get creative because it is unlikely Seattle Public Schools could easily afford prime Downtown real estate if the going rate is around $16 million just for land. Building a Downtown elementary and middle school is important to Seattle’s development, especially if current trends of housing growth in the core continue. Cutting down the distance Downtown residents have to commute to school fits with Seattle’s goal of creating safe routes to school for all kids. And a Downtown school might finally light a fire under the City’s bureaucratic behind to stop delaying and create a safe bike network Downtown.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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AJ McGauley

I think the best way to afford the land needed is to get a developer to build a tower where the bottom 3 or 4 floors are dedicated to a school. Outside the core but still “downtown” where there are still height & FAR limits, could there be a zoning incentive where the space dedicated to the school doesn’t “count” towards height or FAR limits, plus maybe an incentive kicker? This could be desirable for a condo tower in SLU where being slightly higher than the other 400′ towers means a nice premium for penthouses? Or in LQA where the developer could build a 10 story building in a 6 story zoned area.

The Seattle school district (or a charter school) would still be on the hook for the cost of building the floors to spec, the developer simply has to build a structure with the floors [permanently?] leased to the district.

When people say downtown, do they mean the CBD? Given where apartments are, I think it would make more sense to try and build K-5 or K-8 buildings in SLU and First hill (one each), as there is where most people are but still a reasonable commute for people in downtown proper. On the other hand, downtown would be a great location for a magnet school [charter or public]- say an elite prep school for 6-12 – as the school would serve the entire city and being downtown makes it most accessible. For a magnet school like there, you don’t really need a school yard*, so the school could be built into a few floors of an office building. (For example, if your kid wants to play football or basketball, after school he or she catches the bus to, say, Ballard high school to join his team there).

Given the explosive growth of the district’s student population, I would love to see the city & district work together to make both of these happen – multiple elementary schools for our urban neighborhoods near downtown and a new city-wide high school to expand the high school population.

Melissa Westbrook

A couple of thoughts (as a public education blogger in Seattle):

– first, thanks for the plea for some downtown company (like Vulcan or Amazon) to do the civic thing and help the district with this effort. The write is quite right – there is no way for the district to do this on their own. If downtown companies want a school, they need to pitch in to help. The district would likely be willing to lease space (at a low cost, of course) and not expect a free space. (They already lease space at the Armory at Seattle Center for a small high school. They also own the 9 acres that Memorial Stadium and the adjoining park lot sit on but want to develop a high school there so the article’s suggestion for a K-8 makes plenty of sense.)

– second, while there may be growth in the numbers of students downtown, the schools nearest them do have space so the district is unlikely to do much until those schools are full.

– I’m not sure I get the match between having a downtown school and downtown being an affordable place for teachers to live.

– one interesting side note: in the first iteration of the HALA report on education, they stated that if the City built an apartment building, that the bottom floor could be used for a “charter school.” Imagine my surprise because why would the first thought be for a charter school and not to go to the natural partner for the City for a school which would be Seattle Schools.

I pointed this out at my blog and lo and behold, it got changed to “public school” (traditional and charter schools are both considered “public” although the Supreme Court held that charter school do not meet the constitution’s definition of a “common school”). This change was never publicly announced which leads me to wonder what else got quietly changed without public notification.


I like the idea of using the Memorial Stadium property for a more central school. It’s not quite downtown but it’s pretty close. Couldn’t a 9-acre site be used for schools of all grade levels? For reference, Ballard High School is on 5.5 acres and really isn’t using the space all that efficiently. The school is set back pretty far from the street, is only two stories tall, and there’s a pretty large surface parking lot on site.

If the district was willing to build taller and forego a parking lot, there’s no reason 9 acres shouldn’t be enough for a full-sized elementary, middle, and high school while still leaving room for outdoor recreation facilities like at other schools.

“I’m not sure I get the match between having a downtown school and downtown being an affordable place for teachers to live.”

I think the idea might have been that the city could arrange a partnership between the housing authority and the school district to build a tower with a school on the bottom and affordable apartments on top.

However high land prices are an issue here. The city has a limited supply of money to use to build affordable housing. If possible, I’d like to see less of this money used on land so that more of it can be used to actually construct housing units. Perhaps they could rent out some of the units at market rate so that the net cost per subsidized unit is more in line with what they spend in the rest of the city.

Joe Wolf

Current plan (via BEX V) is to build a new 1,600 seat comprehensive high school on the Memorial Stadium site, with a replacement Memorial Stadium and other fields areas on its roof. We toured urban schools back east and really liked the setup at Union City (NJ) High School – aerial photo at the following link.

With all due respect your assumption that there is room for three schools on the Memorial site is incorrect.


Memorial Stadium has to stay a stadium for the district. It is the home field for at least three high schools for two sports plus graduations. The district would not be able to duplicate that space anywhere else. And Joe is right; there is not enough space for K-12 school.

Stephen Fesler

– I’m not sure I get the match between having a downtown school and downtown being an affordable place for teachers to live.

To clarify, Doug didn’t say that. He said this: “We think there may be opportunity for the City to build a mixed-income tower with a joint middle school and elementary school at the base.”

With the Mandatory Affordable Housing requirements that could be passed through HALA, some units in such a building will likely be made affordable to teachers. Or, if there is some public program established in concert with a school on the site, they could be made affordable through other means as well, assuming that units otherwise would not be affordable to a household with a teacher. I think his point is that it would be great to be able to build a school and tower where teachers not only work but could genuinely afford to live at as well. Live, work, play. Sounds pretty ideal.

Anyway, you raise some really good points.

Joe Wolf

This plays directly into the narrative that teachers deserve to be paid only enough to live in the 21st century version of the company town, God forbid we pay them enough to live on the market, in a nice home,

A teacher has value equal to, say an Amazon software engineer, yes?

Stephen Fesler

I don’t have a magic wand to boost pay and cut housing costs, I’m afraid. The fact is that SPS starting pay is abysmal and this is the reality that we face right now. What other narrative is there?


If you haven’t done so already, you should follow Melissa’s education blog. She had done a great job of covering school issues, including the 2014 downtown idea for the school district to use the Federal Reserve building.
(not Melissa, just a reader and fan)

Joe Wolf

Hi Melissa –

McCleary is blowing a hole through the previous forecasts for space need. After next year (2016-17) Lowell (the elementary school for downtown) is full. Because of city lot coverage rules we can’t add portables at Lowell.

In the short term we could do a boundary re-draw and add portables at Hay or Gatzert or both. But the real solution is either a new school or substantial capital/capacity projects at some combination of Lowell/Hay/Gatzert.

With Meany re-opening in 2017 we should be OK for middle school.

Matt the Engineer

We should take a hard look at our state and local requirements for school construction. They tend to be aimed at neighborhoods or greenfield suburban development and in many aspects aren’t appropriate for downtown schools. This is understandable, as we haven’t built one before.

For example, when Queen Anne Elementary ran out of room they looked at ways to even add a portable classroom. Minimum parking requirements were the driving factor for not allowing one. Consider the priorities implied by this requirement, at a time when all classrooms in the area are well over state maximums…

Joe Wolf

At QAES both lot coverage and parking – city zoning/DPD rules – are in play.

SPS has to abide by residential SF zoning rules for lot coverage – 35% for multi-story buildings, 45% for one-story. Parking requirements are dictated by “assembly space” capacity, not by the typical need on a school day.

This leads to having to go for a Departure for every efffing thing (pardon my language). It’s crazy.

Joe Wolf

There are established SPS space and program requirements for K-5, K-8 and 6-8 schools. We are in the process of finishing up high school requirements to take to the Board, in preparation for re-opening the Lincoln campus and building the new high school at Seattle Center.

A K-5 school of 490 capacity requires about 70,000 SF of building space and 1 acre of outdoor hardscape play area, to support both Phys Ed and the new recess time/free play requirement. These are pretty much non-negotiable.


Sounds like a really great use for a lidded area of I-5, yes? School, playing fields, families services…