Smart School Siting
Every day, land use decisions are made that will have an impact on the emissions responsible for climate change for decades to come. The siting of buildings determines if they are accessible by foot or bike, or if we will be obligated to drive. I have been involved in a land use decision over the past several years that unfortunately looks like it’s going to add to our long history of sprawl and continue our dependence on the car as a primary means of transportation. I have written a guest editorial published in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat about the topic. This post will provide additional information about the issue. You can read the editorial here.
The Sebastopol Charter School is a Waldorf-inspired charter school my daughter, who is currently in seventh grade, has been attending since kindergarten. The school is currently located on 2 campuses in Sebastopol, both of which are walkable for many families. Grades K-2 are located in modular classrooms located on property owned by the Sebastopol Unified School District. Grades 3-8 are located in a corner property on Main Street in downtown Sebastopol in a unique mixed-use building built expressly to house the school. The ground floor Main Street frontage contains 3 locally-owned businesses while the school occupies the ground floor spaces on the side street with the classrooms on the second floor. The school had a difficult time obtaining the Use Permit required to allow it to open on the site. The site (which had been a gas station and I have heard a community garden, but had been vacant for some years) was seen as inappropriate by many in the community as a site for a school. The school was granted the use permit, but with an unusual time restriction as a condition of approval. The understanding being that the school would continue to search for a site that would be able to accommodate the entire student body on a more ‘appropriate’ site.
The school provided a strong anchor downtown and became a hub of activity for the southern end of the Sebastopol Main Street commercial district and was soon seen to be an integral part of the downtown community. So much so that it has become known as the ‘Downtown Charter’ school. When the use permit time restriction was about the expire, the school successfully petitioned the city to eliminate the condition allowing the school to remain downtown indefinitely. During the public hearing on the issue, several city council members expressed hope that the school always remain downtown because of the increased vitality it provides. The central location allows for many children to walk and bike to school. It also allows parents that drop their children at school to combine it with other trips in support of downtown businesses. I’m positive the toy store, children’s second hand clothing store and bike store located in the school building owe a great deal of their business to school families.
The downtown location also allows for strong connections to the community. The school has a great deal of visibility in the community due to it’s location on Main Street. Children take walkable field trips to downtown locations such as banks and the post office, and are able to walk along a nearby trail into the Laguna de Santa Rosa for a dose of nature. They have performed at the Sebastopol Senior Center, located 2 blocks away and are able to walk to the public library. Classes use a nearby public park for recess and a public parking lot for drop-off and pick-up for those families that drive. In town organizations such as the local theater have also used the school multi-purpose room from time to time. This kind of sharing of resources strengthens the ties between the school and its community while saving resources at the same time. It also immerses the children in their community, and teaches them they are an integral part of a larger community. The current downtown location has become a truly progressive example of infill development and is an important example of a development that will help us reduce the emissions of climate change inducing pollution.
The limitation of the downtown school is that it is not large enough to accommodate the entire school population of approximately 275 students which has always been part of the vision for the school. As a result, the school leadership has been looking for a site to accommodate the entire school population for years. Most of these searches have focused on land outside of the city in a more rural location. This is partly due to the fact there are not any sites in town that were seen to be large enough to house the school building and associated outdoor space. I have encouraged the exploration of in-town locations, including the idea of expanding the downtown campus which will be discussed in a future post.
One site that has been under consideration for a number of years is a property just outside the northern boundary of Sebastopol. It’s 20 acres on 2 parcels and currently contains one home and a couple of decrepit agricultural outbuildings. Being on the edge of town naturally makes it less convenient for walking and biking than the current in-town locations. Also, since it is outside of the city limits the site does not have access to public utilities like water and sewer. As discussed in my Press Democrat editorial, this site is a prime example of the type of sprawling development we need to move away from if we are to have any hope of decreasing our generation emissions contributing to climate change. I have been active in discouraging the purchase of this property as a member of the Charter Foundation board and the school facilities committee. I have unfortunately lost the debate and the school is currently in contract to purchase the property.
There was a time when we built neighborhood schools. These schools were often focal points of the community and were centrally located because most children walked to school. They tended to be on smaller sites than we build schools today and the facilities were often available to the community outside of school hours. Walking and biking to school gives children regular exercise which is so important in combating the disturbing rise of childhood obesity, which has risen more than 30% in recent decades. It also gives children a sense of independence and self-sufficiency. My own daughter started walking to school in kindergarten. The roughly mile long walk really improved her strength and stamina. It was also a wonderful time to connect with her. She developed such a sense of pride and independence when she was finally allowed to walk to school on her own at the end of third grade. It has had a profound impact on who she is. And has helped teach her that she can take control of how she gets around town, which is truly liberating for for someone unable to drive. I wish more children could have this opportunity. There is a great deal of research in support of the neighborhood school model and school districts across the country are being encouraged to preserve existing neighborhood schools and consider the siting of new schools in locations that support walking, biking and public transportation for the health of our children and communities. It is unfortunate that the Sebastopol Charter School is not among the schools heeding these recommendations.
More discussion of expansion options and the implications of the proposed site will be the subject of future posts. Stay tuned.
Smart School Siting – 2 | smalltownurbanism