Tacoma School Board approves $7.6 million purchase of downtown building for arts high school

The decision was unanimous: Tacoma School of the Arts will get a spacious new home in the heart of the city’s theater district.

At a special meeting Friday, the Tacoma School Board voted 4-0, with member Catherine Ushka absent, to buy a three-story building and nearby parking garage at Ninth Street and Broadway in downtown Tacoma.

The purchase price of $7.6 million — $6.2 million for the building, $1.4 million for the garage — will be paid in full. The district will use $5 million it has in savings from a 2001 voter-approved construction bond and the remaining $2.6 million in matching money from the state.

“This is a building we can grow into,” board member Karen Vialle said at another meeting Thursday night.

Fittingly, the building sits on the site of the former Music Box Theater, a mainstay of the theater district that burned down in 1963. The replacement building was designed to echo the old theater’s iconic turreted facade. It is directly across from the historic Pantages Theater and next door to the Rialto.

The board discussed the purchase-and-sale agreement at its regular board meeting Thursday. No one from the public spoke at either Thursday or Friday’s meetings.

The board sees the purchase as an opportunity to expand programs offered to high school students at SOTA, but it has not talked about expanding enrollment, said School Board President Kurt Miller. Separate board approval would be required to do that.

SOTA is capped at 500 students, with applications each year often two to three times that number. The school opened to 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders in 2001, then added its first freshman class in 2012 under the condition that total enrollment be capped at 500 students for four years, with a board review of the cap every year.

The curriculum includes dance, music, drawing and painting, graphic arts and sculpting along with integrated math and science courses.

Buying the Ninth and Broadway building outright will save the district money in the long run, Miller said. That’s because the district won’t have to pay interest or lease classroom space elsewhere downtown. After seven to eight years, the district is expected to see a return on the investment, according to information provided to Miller by Steve Murakami, executive director of facilities.

SOTA students now attend classes in three buildings downtown and on the University of Washington Tacoma campus. The district owns two of the buildings — 1950 Pacific Ave. and two floors of the old Ted Brown Building on Broadway — and leases the second floor of the historic Post Office/Courthouse building at 1102 A St.

Buying the Ninth and Broadway building means the district could decide not to renew the lease for the Post Office/Courthouse building when it runs out in three years, Miller said.

Also, the district learned earlier this year that four classrooms at UWT won’t be available to SOTA for the 2014-15 school year, leaving it only two classrooms. UWT couldn’t commit to offering any space after that, Miller said.

SOTA classes have been on the university campus for more than a decade, but the district has known from the start that UWT would grow and reclaim the space for its own programs, Miller said.

Students won’t occupy the 302 Ninth St. building until the 2015-16 school year; the district will spend the interim period getting it ready.

Part of the 45,000-square-foot building is leased by tax, mortgage and engineering firms, a print shop and a Subway restaurant. Two leases expire in September, while others continue until 2016. The board will decide at a later date how to handle them.

Board members also talked about possibly leasing space in the four-story Rialto parking garage it bought to generate additional revenue for the school. Owning the garage also means the district can stop leasing space at another garage downtown for SOTA teachers and students.

The board said the Ninth and Broadway building is perfectly located to increase community partnerships in the city’s theater district.

The district has been looking for a building for SOTA since 2012. It had a list of 17 potential sites, some for sale and others for lease.

The Ninth and Broadway building was originally available for lease, but building owner Music Box Associates eventually agreed to sell the properties.

Tax records show the two buildings have an assessed value of $2.68 million, but they received a market appraisal of $7.6 million.

The district expected negotiations would take more time, but the deal came together quickly after Music Box Associates accepted the appraisal price offer, Miller said.

The deal is expected to close by the end of next month.