Tacoma School District might buy downtown building and garage for School of the Arts

The Tacoma School Board will vote Friday on buying a three-story building and parking garage for $7.6 million to expand facilities for the popular Tacoma School of the Arts.

The school district has a purchase-and-sale agreement for the Ninth and Broadway Building and a nearby four-story parking garage in downtown Tacoma, said Steve Murakami, executive director of facilities.

SOTA would continue to operate in all three of its current locations — all within a half-mile of the proposed new site — for at least the school year starting in September. The program, which receives more applicants than it has room for, would expand into the new building in the fall of 2015, after any renovations, Murakami said.

The purchase would give SOTA more room for its current enrollment, capped at 500 students in ninth through 12th grades. It also would provide room to add students, Murakami said, and provide spaces for school staff to park at no cost.

School Board President Kurt Miller said Wednesday there are no current plans to increase SOTA’s enrollment.

“We don’t see expansion as of now,” Miller said. “You lose the effectiveness of a small school if you go too big. It was designed as a small school.”

SOTA, which opened in 2001, receives two to three times as many applicants as it has room for with each new ninth-grade class, Murakami said. Students are selected by lottery.

“This will give us the opportunity to expand that,” Murakami said.

The school’s offerings include dance, music, sketch painting, graphic arts and sculpting. They are integrated with math and science courses.

The Ninth and Broadway Building is located between the Pantages and Rialto theaters.

The location is pivotal for increasing local partnerships, including with the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts and the two theaters, Murakami said. SOTA programs already use the Broadway Center’s theater spaces for student performances.

“The idea with SOTA has always been to be integral with the downtown fabric,” he said.

The purchase price is $6.2 million for the building and $1.4 million for the garage.

Murakami said the district has been looking for more property for the school during the past year but wasn’t able to find the right fit until the building at 302 Ninth St. went on the market.

Tax, mortgage and engineering firms, a print shop and a Subway restaurant franchise are among the businesses that lease space in the 45,000-square-foot building. Leases for two of those tenants expire by the end of September, while some continue until 2016, Murakami said.

He said SOTA is stretched thin at its three main locations and at a reduced number of classrooms it’s been able to use at the University of Washington Tacoma.

“Right now, I would say that we’re really tight,” Murakami said. “This is the opportunity to give them some wiggle room.”

SOTA’s classes are held primarily in three locations downtown. They are:

•  Leased space on the second floor of the historic Post Office/Courthouse building at 1102 A St.

•  Tacoma School District-owned space at 1950 S. Pacific Ave.

•  Space in the old Ted Brown Building on Broadway. (The district owns the inside space in an arrangement similar to that of a condominium.)

Murakami said $5 million of the purchase price would come from savings resulting from a 2001 construction bond. The remaining $2.6 million would be paid in state matching dollars.

If the purchase is approved Friday, the sale could close by the end of August, he said.

The School Board will hear more information about the deal at its regular meeting Thursday (July 24). It will vote on the purchase-and-sale agreement with Music Box Associates at a special meeting Friday. The board will take public comment at both meetings, Miller said.

Miller said he has questions about the deal. The purchase-and-sale agreement was reached Tuesday.

“We didn’t expect this to happen so quickly,” Miller said. “We don’t have the information in front of us.”

While he likes the idea of the purchase, he said he wants to see a five-year plan for the space SOTA currently uses, including what will happen to space as leases expire.

“I just want to double-check that we’re using the dollars efficiently and the project won’t impact any of the dollars that the voters have approved on the various bonds over the years,” he said.