In a 5-2 vote Wednesday evening, the Seattle school board took the first step toward securing the first elementary school in downtown Seattle in some 65 years.
The board empowered the superintendent to negotiate with the federal government and possibly accept the former Seattle branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
If approved, the district would have to convert the six-story, fortresslike building — which sits on on second Avenue between Madison and Spring streets — into a school within three years.
The building and land would be free, but the district estimates it would cost between $51 million and $53 million to create a school within the structure for about 700 students from preschool through 5th grade. The board hasn’t committed to do any of that yet.
The superintendent wouldn’t be able to accept the building until the board and the public had sufficient time to review an analysis of the costs and consequences.
But the board had to act quickly on naming a negotiator, a requirement of the application that is due tomorrow, which meant introducing and voting on the resolution at the same meeting.
Board member Sue Peters said she was uneasy about the rushed process and voted against the resolution. Board member Betty Patu also voted no, saying the money would be better spent on improving the school buildings the district already has.
The 64-year-old building has been vacant since 2008, when the Fed moved its regional offices to Renton. The Federal Reserve Bank deeded the site in 2012 to the General Services Administration, which manages government property.
Federal agencies got first dibs on the building, but there were no takers, so groups serving the homeless were next in line under the GSA’s complex process for disposing of surplus property. The federal Health and Human Services Department rejected an application for the building from Compass Housing Alliance on June 3.
That opened the door for Seattle Public Schools to apply, but it didn’t give officials much time to inspect the building and draw up some options.
“We were literally given less than 30 days notice,” said Richard Best, the district’s director of capital projects and planning. “We are quickly scrambling with our consultants to collect as much information as we can about this property.”
The GSA also provided the district with a detailed report on hazardous materials that will have to be removed, including lead paint and asbestos.
Complicating matters, a local historical-preservation group that successfully advocated for the building to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places asked a federal judge on Wednesday to halt any sale or transfer of the property.
The Committee for the Preservation of the Seattle Federal Reserve Bank Building filed suit in U.S. District Court in Seattle alleging that GSA has violated requirements of that listing as well as open-record laws and environmental regulations.
The city of Seattle and the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board also are defendants.
If the district is able and willing to acquire the building, the renovation would cost Seattle Public Schools more than any of the four elementary schools in the latest round of school construction — between $41 and $43 million each — but those schools are being built on district property.
The GSA has not assessed the property’s market value, but downtown Seattle real estate is in high demand.
The district would pay for the renovations out of future revenue, not by diverting money already committed to other construction projects, said Lester “Flip” Herndon Jr., assistant superintendent for capital, facilities and enrollment planning.
The renovations could be included in a levy the district will ask voters to renew in 2016 or from a specific request to the state legislature, Herndon said.
There is one public high school already near downtown Seattle — Center School, on the grounds of Seattle Center. But the area has had no elementary or middle school for about 65 years.
About 450 students in kindergarten through 5th grade now live within one mile of the former bank building. More than 1,000 live within a mile and a half, according to the district, with future growth anticipated.
Initially, the city of Seattle had planned to apply for the building on the district’s behalf, but officials decided the application would be stronger if it came directly from Seattle Public Schools.
City and district officials have been working closely over the past few weeks and the proposed school includes a city priority — space for preschool.
Last month the City Council voted to place a $58 million property-tax levy on the November ballot to boost the quality and affordability of preschool in Seattle.
A new downtown school would include three preschool classrooms serving about 50 students and an outside play area for those children, although it doesn’t specify who would provide the instruction, according to the district.
The K-5 part of the building would serve up to 660 students.
The district already offers preschool for children with special needs and hosts Head Start and other outside providers at several elementary schools.
But school officials have repeatedly told the city that the district is too crowded as it is and can’t take on additional preschool responsibilities.