Faced with aging buildings and growing needs, schools struggle to find suitable new locations, and discover the necessity of partnerships with business and the community.
By J. David Santen Jr.
One view of Portland’s Lincoln High School can be found in a recent seven-page assessment of its 1950s-era facilities.
The consultant’s report ticks off an estimated $23.5 million in needed repairs and upgrades — a fraction of the more than $1 billion in costs districtwide — that include replacing the athletic field bleachers (closed midway through last fall’s football season) and the school’s roof, along with fixing significant plumbing and electrical problems and accessibility issues. Not to mention the “modular classrooms” eyesore necessary to accommodate the school’s 1,400-plus students.
Another view of the aging school is that it’s an underutilized 11-acre parcel at the foot of the West Hills in downtown Portland, minutes from cultural activities, parks, light rail and streetcar lines, restaurants and other amenities, and near some of the city’s toniest neighborhoods. A prime spot, whose land is worth $35.3 million, for a new mixed-use development.
These two perspectives of Lincoln High sum up what many school systems across Oregon are facing: aging, outmoded buildings in desirable locations with changing student populations that are forcing the districts to find new areas to expand and new ways to rebuild.
The real estate challenges associated with building and rebuilding (or consolidating and selling) schools are as varied as the districts themselves.
“This is not just a big district, big city problem,” says Ruth Scott, president of Innovation Partnership, an organization that has helped districts around the state manage their real estate issues.
As demand for land intensifies, with supply constrained by state land-use laws and urban growth boundaries, school districts find themselves even more limited in where they can place new schools. Most districts build where everyone else is building: in town and in the ’burbs. Traditional standards for schools call for flat parcels of 10 acres for new elementary sites, 20 acres for middle schools and 30 acres for high schools — plus an additional acre per 100 students. In growing urban areas, those large sites can be few and far between.
So schools have become motivated to reconsider what they already own: building a new middle school on an “oversized” elementary school site, for example, or replacing smaller schools with larger (and taller) ones at the same location. The land that school districts are purchasing today may still be flat, but more than likely the parcels are smaller and awkward configurations, acquired and developed in conjunction with multiple partners, such as parks and cities, or condemned from private owners. Or it’s property that the district has managed to stockpile through long-range planning. However they come about it, property is at a premium.
A separate but equal challenge is explaining to neighbors why the district might close older schools and sell land it already owns. Even in the face of declining enrollments, it’s an easier decision financially than socially and emotionally. Schools are de facto recreation centers and parks, meeting places and historic sites. Their zoning is often conditionally approved for school-use only in otherwise residential areas, and rezoning for a new development can be fraught with community input and politics.
To top it off, the school boards and superintendents facing these decisions to buy and sell land, to build or shutter schools, rarely come from a real estate background — particularly the superintendents. So schools, driven by the challenge of managing real estate, have developed new partnerships with cities, counties, parks and libraries, developers and community organizations.
The 21st-century school is one that is woven into the fabric of the community, rather than carved out of it.
“THE GOOD LAND, THE EASY LAND already has been developed a long time ago,” says architect Steve Olson of Dull Olson Weekes Architects, which designed Portland’s Rosa Parks School. That attitude is reflected in the varied approaches school districts have adopted to fuel their appetite for land.
The mostly suburban Hillsboro School District has built and opened four elementary schools, two middle schools and a high school since 1997. Four more elementary schools are now under construction. The designs are “kind of cookie cutter,” says Loren Rogers, the district’s director of facilities, planning and property, with stock plans for classrooms, gymnasiums and offices that can be reconfigured to suit the site. That’s made building the schools relatively easy, even when finding the land was not.
Some solutions have included land-banking and planning ahead. Witch Hazel Elementary, which opened in 2003, was built on a 20-acre site that included space for South Meadows, a middle school now under construction and scheduled to open in fall 2009. The two schools will share some of the site’s amenities, such as bus loading and parent drop-off areas, as well as proximity to the Witch Hazel Village community.
A 1998 bond measure enabled Salem-Keizer to build 10 new schools, which were at capacity upon completion, but not to buy additional land for future growth. Thus it finds itself using modular classrooms as a stopgap measure while the real estate market tightens. A recently proposed housing development of some 700 homes included land designated for a new school, to be purchased by the district, but on a parcel not suitable for school construction.
Luis Caraballo, director of facilities and planning for Salem-Keizer Public Schools, says that a new bond measure proposal for his district will include “forward investing” strategies (such as acquiring property) that will allow the district to better plan for a future in which Salem-Keizer may be the state’s largest district. Its 2007-2008 enrollment of 40,106 students is second in Oregon only to Portland’s 46,262, and growing.
Other fast-growing districts have found partnerships with land developers to be more productive solutions to their real estate woes. When Brooks Resources began planning its 483-acre NorthWest Crossing development in Bend, it worked with the Bend-La Pine School District to site a 600-student elementary school and a high school in the development. Working in conjunction with a developer allowed for mutually beneficial design decisions, says company president Kirk Schueler, such as the removal of some fencing around the school, as well as sharing costs for sewers, water and other infrastructure development requirements.
“The more you make schools part of the development, they become more of an asset to the community, more attractive, and there are more eyes on the school.” With the 2,700-home IronHorse development in the works for nearby Prineville, Brooks has worked with Crook County School District to make the inclusion of a school at the site even more seamless, with parks and retail nearby.
Encouraging this kind of thinking is the impetus behind Innovation Partnership’s new Center for Innovative School Facilities, which is no stranger to schools’ real estate issues. In 2001-2002, Innovation Partnership assisted Portland Public Schools in establishing a real estate trust comprised of real estate development professionals that serve in an advisory capacity. Along the way, Portland Public Schools began to identify properties that could be better used or sold.
AN INFORMAL COALITION of parents, business leaders and developers this past fall floated a proposal to move Portland’s Lincoln High School. This came at the same time as the school district’s yearlong assessment of its properties, which will likely conclude with a bond proposal in November 2008.
Whether the move will happen or not remains to be seen, and debated — alternate proposals may include rebuilding Lincoln in conjunction with higher-density development on the same site. Communities have strong emotional investments in schools, with Lincoln’s no exception.
But the spirit, if not the details, of the Lincoln deal is the kind of bold thinking that the Portland process seems ready to embrace. School leaders already have revealed plans to demolish and rebuild 10 existing elementary and middle schools as part of a massive renovation and modernization project that will cost well over $1 billion in the coming years. Those will undoubtedly incorporate public libraries, parks or affordable housing, using schools as leverage to attract and retain families in Portland while wringing as much value as possible from limited financial and land resources.
And while change cannot happen without school districts, it can originate elsewhere. On a former low-income housing site, Portland Public Schools worked with the Housing Authority of Portland and a host of other partners to develop a master plan that would include new mixed-use, mixed-income development, paid for with public and private dollars, along with a new school. Rosa Parks School opened there in 2006 on a tiny two-acre parcel, adjacent to a Boys & Girls Club and a community center. Its award-winning, environmentally friendly structure has helped set a new standard for how schools in Oregon can be integrated into their communities.
Though the push for this project — as well as the developments in central Oregon and other examples around the country — may not have originated with the school district, the results are ones that benefit schools and their communities.
“From the educators’ point of view, schools are much more a part of the community,” says Innovation Partnership’s Ruth Scott. “They’ve learned that isolation doesn’t create safety.”
Safety, sustainability, flexible uses, smaller footprints and multiple users are all trends of the modern school. And though Oregon districts have yet to fully embrace this model, Scott says she’s seen many examples of new partnerships in school development.
“We’re not going to get away from building ball fields,” Scott says.
But in the future, how those ball fields and schools get funded and built more than likely will be a homework assignment shared by the whole community.
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