Smart School Siting – 3
This post is a continuation of 2 previous posts which can be viewed here and here.
During my time on the Sebastopol Charter School facilities committee and the Charter Foundation board, I presented several schemes for the expansion of the downtown campus. One missed opportunity that still haunts me is when a property near the downtown campus was put on the market. The property had been an auto repair shop and it shares a property line with Ives Park. It would have been a great campus for the K-2 classes with the ability to have a direct connection to the park, and only being a block away from the 3-8 campus. This was during the time when the school was in negotiations for the Pine Crest campus which was being vacated by the Sebastopol Shool District. At the time it seemed likely that the school would be moving into the Pine Crest campus. When the school realized the lease was not going to happen we made some inquiries into the for sale property, only to find it had entered escrow the week before. I had suggested looking at the property a couple months earlier to the chairwoman of the facilities committee. She told me she had already looked at it and it wasn’t large enough. I will always regret not pushing the issue harder because it would have been a great solution and avoided the situation we are in now. (Plus the property was sold to another auto repair shop, not the best and highest use of a downtown property with significant access to a public park.)
But even without this site, there are other opportunities to expand the downtown campus. There are two underutilized properties on the block shared by the downtown campus, which are ripe for redevelopment. One is a city parking lot that shares a property line with the school and is used by the school for pick-up and drop-off as well as faculty/staff parking. It is not used much otherwise. (The City of Sebastopol conducted a parking lot survey in 2010. The study found this parking lot was underutilized with an average space occupancy of 22%. The study suggested this lot could be redeveloped and put to better use.) The lot is about 0.7 acres and if acquired by the school would about double the size of the existing downtown campus. I produced several sketches for how this additional land could be used to accommodate the K-2 classes a multi-purpose facility and additional open space. One option would be to add the classroom space on the current campus and use the parking lot exclusively for additional open space, which could be shared by the community after hours. The other would develop buildings and open space on the parking lot site. The newly created open space could be shared with the public outside of school hours, similar to many other school campuses.
Obviously, expanding into the school parking lot would require the city to sell, or lease it to the school. There have been several very preliminary conversations about this with various city officials which were generally favorable. It would not necessarily be easy or inexpensive, but certainly no more difficult or more expensive than developing a 20 acre campus from scratch outside of town. And it allows us to continue to use the existing downtown campus which is paid for, and it preserves our community identity and connections. We would not end up with anything near 20 acres, but I question why the school leadership thinks we need that much land.
Another possibility would be to expand into the second underutilized property on the block which fronts Main Street. This site currently houses a tacqueria, deli, auto repair shop and self-service laundry, in addition to parking. Not the highest and best use of a prominent Main Street parcel. The school could develop a mixed-use building on this property similar to the existing downtown campus which would have the added benefits of redeveloping an eye-sore site into a more appropriate urban building and be a source of income for the school. This site is 0.8 acres and also shares a property line with the existing downtown campus.
Both of these parcels have a storm drain easement across the northern 40′ which cannot be built upon (this easement contains Ives Creek which enters a culvert across the street at the edge of Ives Park and is undergrounded for several blocks). However, there is still adequate space for development. Either parcel provides enough space to add the additional classrooms and open space on it’s own, but developing both would allow for even more open space and could certainly be an option. If all 3 parcels were developed for the school, the total area of the land would be 2.18 acres. But, if you include Ives Park, which is directly across the street from the parking lot property and which the school already use regularly for recess, the total effective size of the school campus could be as much as 6.5 acres. Granted, the park is not private so the students have to share it with other users, but it is not heavily used during the school day, as most children are in school.
I must admit that Ives Park is not in the best condition. It’s old and worn. Many sidewalks are uneven and not accessible. The creek which runs through the center of the Park is in a concrete channel for most of its journey across the park with chain link fences on either side. The play equipment is not all that fun. There isn’t a good large grassy area to play soccer or kickball. However, the city does have an approved Master Plan for the renovation of the park and is pursuing money for the implementation of that plan. The Master Plan includes new accessible walkways, new lighting, naturalizing of the creek and removing the chain link fence, new play equipment and expanded lawn areas The Master Plan also includes a proposal to increase the size of the park by reclaiming land used for an adjacent street which shortcuts a ‘T’ intersection and saves a few seconds of travel time for people in cars, but which creates a difficult street crossing for pedestrians. What if instead of spending money developing a new campus on the edge of town the school made a contribution to the Ives Park Master Plan implementation? Think of how that would strengthen our bonds with the community by helping to improve a shared resource for the benefit of all.
As we look for ways to deal with climate change we must think creatively and learn how to share resources. The existing school location allows resources to be shared throughout our community. In addition to having a park across the street the school is located a block from the public library. Why would we need our own library when the public library is so close and accessible? Many students regularly walk to the library after school. It’s a great opportunity for them. The Sebastopol Center for the Arts is across the street. They have an auditorium that is available for rent. By renting the existing auditorium the school does not need to build and maintain their own, and they also benefit a local non-profit. We could also rent parking spaces from the Center for the Arts, which is not used much during the day, instead of renting the spaces in the city parking lot. Again, this would provide some revenue for a local non-profit. There are many opportunities to share resources with other organizations downtown. This isn’t to say we can’t share resources from the school’s proposed new site, however we cannot easily walk or bike between them. We are a much more integral part of the community at the downtown location. The school is known locally as the downtown charter school.
The proposed school campus is 20 acres. There is no way we can get that much space and stay in town. But why does a school of 275 students need 20 acres? Expanding the downtown campus will put some the desires of some in the school community off the table. We will not be able to have a large biodynamic garden at an in-town location. We could certainly develop smaller gardening plots in town, but we’ll never have livestock. We will not be able to plant an orchard, but could certainly plant some fruit trees. Teachers will not be able to open their classroom doors and let the children run free. If going to the park, they will need to walk together and cross the street in an orderly fashion, but I don’t see this as a bad thing. It teaches the children how to live in a community, and how to be aware of streets and cars. I’m sure there are other items on the schools wish list that will need to be scaled down, or eliminated entirely, by expanding the downtown campus instead of relocating to the out-of-town location. But will those ‘sacrifices’ impair the mission of the school to educate children in a public school using a Waldorf curriculum? I don’t believe so. There are plenty of successful Waldorf schools around the world in more urban locations. And I believe the education my daughter, who has spent 8 years at the school, has received has been great.
The impacts of climate change are becoming more evident every day. (We’re experiencing the driest year on record here.) Scientists are confident that the burning of fossil fuels by humans are the cause of climate change (Human Influence on Climate Clear, IPCC Report Says). For the most part we continue to ignore the signs and continue on with business as usual. We need to wake up, and soon, to the fact that we cannot continue developing in this sprawling manner if we hope to slow the impacts of climate change. We need to make quick and substantial reductions to the amount of carbon we are putting into the atmosphere. I believe we owe it to our children and their children. The existing downtown location is much more centrally located in Sebastopol and allows for the most students to be able to walk and bike to school safely and is a far more appropriate site for a school.