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caption: Tom Graff (R) and members of Belltown United meet with school board candidates Michelle Sarju (L) and Vivian Song Maritz (2nd from L) to talk about the proposed school site in Belltown
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Tom Graff (R) and members of Belltown United meet with school board candidates Michelle Sarju (L) and Vivian Song Maritz (2nd from L) to talk about the proposed school site in Belltown
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Can downtown Seattle attract families? The big question behind the debate about a new school.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan wants to put a public elementary school downtown. She’s offering the school district the right to build on the former entrance to the Battery Street tunnel.

That decision is not final, but it’s prompted a lot of discussions about the future of downtown.

More than 5,000 kids live in downtown Seattle. But you don’t see many of them on the streets of Belltown, Seattle’s densest neighborhood.

Makai Wright lives in Belltown. He doesn’t think of it as a place to raise a family.

“If I had like a bigger apartment, then yeah," he says. "Right now, I’m kind of in ... a lot of these apartments and stuff are studios, one bedrooms. So that’s probably another reason you don’t see a lot of families out here. I grew up in a house, and a lot of other families did.”

When kids reach school age here, a lot of families move away.

The Downtown Seattle Association has been pushing for an elementary school in the area for 10 years, in hope of keeping families around. But a school hasn’t been built, in part, because vacant land is so expensive and the competition fierce.

So when the city signed a deal last week giving the school district first dibs on the old Battery Street Tunnel entrance site in Belltown, it was a big deal, according to Marshall Foster, head of Seattle’s office of the Waterfront and Civic Projects.

“To be able to go out and, in the market, secure a site like this for an elementary school in our downtown is next to impossible," he says. "And because we vacated the land with the viaduct removal, we’re able to do something remarkable here, which is to give them the opportunity.”

One person who’s remarking a lot on the opportunity to build a school here is Tom Graff. He’s with a community group called Belltown United. They’re fighting the school. They want the land to become a park, instead.

caption: Potential site for a downtown elementary school in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood
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Potential site for a downtown elementary school in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

It’s not hard to visualize. After the tunnel was filled with rubble from the viaduct, workers topped it with soil and planted green grass on top.

“And it would be an amazing piece of open space for people in Belltown – but also people going to the Market, to Seattle Center – and the view down to the waterfront," Graff says. "And it’s a once in a ... this will never happen again, is my point. And we didn’t want to give it up.”

Graff is showing off the site to a couple of school board candidates. He wants to convince them to come out against putting a school here. He argues that this neighborhood lacks kids in part because the apartments are too small.

“I want kids in these buildings, and I hope some day it happens, but we’ve got to build to the needs here now," he tells them.

School board candidate Vivian Song Maritz is skeptical of the argument that families can’t live in small apartments.

“My family – we lived in Tokyo previously, we were a family of six, so we lived in a 1,600-square-foot apartment. So we understand about dense living."

But she wonders if all the apartments being built here will be studios and one-bedrooms.

“Because you could build this school, but if there’s no intention to build family housing around it, then that’s not a match.”

caption: Chain link fence surrounds a potential downtown elementary school site in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood.
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Chain link fence surrounds a potential downtown elementary school site in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Candidate Michelle Sarju asks why we would build a shiny new school when old schools, especially in South Seattle, are in desperate need.

“We have so many other needs in our city, in terms of solving overcrowded classes, upgrading buildings that are in great disrepair,” she says.

But there’s an equity argument for a downtown school too. Many kids downtown don't have a home. And the Downtown Seattle Association says this school would have lots of kids on the free lunch program.

The City of Seattle’s Marshall Foster says putting a school downtown has always been a bit of a chicken and egg problem. How to get a school when you don’t have the families. How to get families when you don’t have a school.

He says it’s a problem the district has never had time to thoroughly examine before, because it never had a real shot at land like this.

caption: Potential downtown school site in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood
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Potential downtown school site in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

“I can tell you as an urban planner, and someone who’s worked on our downtown for a long time, look at any successful thriving downtown, you will find an elementary school, you will find an investment in children. And families are at the heart of that,” Foster says.

Even if the land becomes a school, it would include some space for a park, Foster says. But it wouldn't be the ground-level park covering most of a full city block that Belltown United is asking for.

Foster says the deal that would let the school district use this land is complicated. The school district would need to find a way to pay for it, which could include placing the item on a future school levy. *

And then there’s the question of whether the school district even wants to put a school here. A spokesperson says for now, it’s committed only to doing some deep analysis of the question.

It must determine, by examining demographic trends, whether children will become a permanent part of downtown Seattle’s future.

[*Correction: an earlier version of this story implied the school would appear on the 2022 levy. In fact, it will not appear on that levy, the City of Seattle's Marshall Foster clarified. The school district has up to 10 years to decide on how to fund the school.]

Comments or tips? You can reach reporter Joshua McNichols at jmcnichols@kuow.org.