A neighborhood appeal over construction of a new Arlington Elementary School could potentially delay the project by up to a year, officials from Tacoma Public Schools say.
Chris Beale, part of the South Tacoma Neighborhood Council who is representing the group in its appeal of a city permit already approved for the school project, said that neighbors welcome construction of a new Arlington. Construction is supposed to start this summer.
But the appeal, filed in February and presented before a city hearing examiner earlier this month, argues that the school district failed to adequately consider traffic impacts that the new building could create. Without the data, Beale said, it’s impossible to gauge what kind of street improvements the city should require as part of the school project.
Arlington is one of 14 major remodeling or replacement projects Tacoma Public Schools has undertaken as part of the capital construction bond passed by voters in 2013. During the year of construction, Arlington kids will be bused to the district’s transition site at McKinley Elementary School. The new Arlington is scheduled to open in September 2017.
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“The school is going to be awesome,” said Beale, who lives just a few blocks away. “We are completely in support of that.”
But he says that without a thorough analysis of future traffic patterns around the new school, it’s impossible to know about possible effects to surrounding streets from the building project.
A planner for the city of Puyallup, Beale also sits on the planning commission for the city of Tacoma, where he and others update the city’s comprehensive plan, develop regulations and review zoning changes. However, he emphasized that he filed the appeal for the neighborhood council wearing his “citizen hat.”
Beale said the traffic study commissioned by the school district didn’t offer projections beyond 2018 — just one year after the new school is scheduled to open. But during the recent hearing, traffic engineer Greg Heath, whose firm performed the traffic analysis for the school district, said that the analysis was based on observation of current traffic patterns with an added 2 percent annual growth factor. Stretching the analysis further into the future would feel “contrived,” he said.
“It is an existing school in a static environment, in a built-up location,” Heath said.
Additionally, city planner Shirley Schultz said that because the school is near what’s known as an “accident potential zone” of McChord Field, it’s unlikely that the city would approve increased residential density for the neighborhood.
“This area is as built out as it is going to get,” she said.
It is an existing school in a static environment, in a built-up location
Traffic engineer Greg Heath
Still, Beale says there’s not enough information in the traffic report to determine whether the new school will generate more vehicles on nearby streets, and whether the school district should therefore contribute to street improvements.
Arlington houses around 325 students but is being rebuilt with a 450-student capacity. Beale argues that a nearly 40 percent increase in students would logically mean more drop-offs and pickups by parents, and other activity that could generate increased traffic.
But Rob Sawatzky, the school district’s director of planning and construction, says the district is merely creating the new school’s capacity to meet a district standard for 450-student elementary schools. The district says school enrollment isn’t expected to reach capacity soon. Heath said that the school’s population has been relatively static for the past 10 years.
Sawatzky said that, with the largely unused portable classrooms that are at Arlington, the current site capacity is 625. He said the new school will actually bring that number down to 450, and the portables will be moved elsewhere.
Still, Beale said the city itself is expected to grow by more than 125,000 residents in the next 25 years. And he thinks it’s logical to assume that the population growth will include kids.
This being the doorstep to our neighborhood — it embarrasses me
Chris Beale, South Tacoma Neighborhood Council
Initially, discussions between the neighborhood council and the school district centered on a particularly bad stretch of South Cedar Street that runs along the west side of the Arlington property.
Between South 72nd and South 74th streets, South Cedar is pockmarked with large potholes, and punctuated by a towering evergreen that stands squarely in the middle of the street.
“This being the doorstep to our neighborhood — it embarrasses me,” said Beale, who has lived in the area for more than three years.
In a January letter to city officials, he called the stretch of South Cedar “one of the worst streets in Tacoma.”
School district officials said the street’s poor condition wasn’t the district’s fault. And, thanks to new tax revenues approved by voters in November, the city has now scheduled the cratered stretch of South Cedar Street near Arlington for repaving this summer.
The school district volunteered to remove the tree in the roadway and install a sewer line beneath the street to allow the repaving to take place.
Beale is glad to hear that help is on the way for South Cedar. But he maintains that effects on the transportation network around the school can’t be accurately determined without a more thorough analysis.
Sawatzky told the hearing examiner that the school district is making other improvements that include a pickup and drop-off area for parents, more parking spots for staff and visitors, and curb cuts to improve handicap accessibility.
325Current student population
Beale said a delay in building the new Arlington would be “a big disappointment to myself personally, and the South Tacoma Neighborhood Council.”
But he says it’s wrong to blame the appeal for a potential delay.
In addition to finding fault with the traffic study, Beale also pointed out that the school district didn’t notify the neighborhood council of its findings under the State Environmental Policy Act, even though the council had verbally asked to be a party of record. The district also initially failed to file needed documents with the state Department of Ecology that could have alerted the group to the findings.
“In our view, if the school district had involved us in the upfront SEPA review process in August of last year, we could have flagged these concerns and worked with the district to resolve these issues,” he said.
District officials acknowledge the error in failing to notify Ecology, but said it was a harmless procedural error. They point out that notices were sent to property owners who live within 500 feet of the school.
The hearing examiner is scheduled to issue a ruling soon. Meanwhile, the school district is proceeding according to schedule.
Bids on the project were opened April 12 and are scheduled to be considered by the Tacoma School Board Thursday.
Beale said he is concerned about the possibility that other community groups could be excluded from the district’s review process in the future.
“Regardless of whether we prevail in the appeal or not, we sincerely hope that the district will be more intentional and transparent in the review and public input process in the future,” Beale stated.
Say farewell to the old Arlington
The community is invited to say farewell to the nearly century-old Arlington Elementary at an event scheduled for 1-4 p.m. April 30 at the school, 3002 S. 72nd St., Tacoma.
Visitors are invited to share memories and look through school memorabilia, tour the building, view plans for the new school and visit with current and former staff, students and parents.
A brief program is set for 1:30 p.m., with refreshments and tours to follow.
Tacoma Public Schools representatives will be available during the event to answer questions about construction or the new building.
New building features will include:
▪ Protected outdoor learning spaces accessible to every classroom
▪ Rooms that open into shared spaces that can accommodate different sizes of learning groups
▪ A playground designed around what kids asked for: more trees, and incorporating their favorite hill into the play features.
For more information about school construction projects, go to BuildingforAchievement.com or email email@example.com.