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Board approved, code restricted - Site for PEAK project settled, but building is larger than what city regulations allow

By Mary L. Grady

A proposal by the Boys & Girls Club to build a teen center and field house on school district land near the high school has moved one step forward and perhaps two steps back.

The Mercer Island School Board selected a site for the proposed project, called PEAK, but learned at the same time that planners had incorrectly interpreted a key city code on the amount of development allowed on the land.

The preliminary concept of a 30,000- to 40,000-square-foot facility was made with the assumption that the city allowed 60 percent of the land to be covered with impervious surfaces. In actuality, the city allows 40 percent of the site to be covered by a surface impenetrable by water.

``We thought we would still be within the 60 percent. That calculation is wrong. This site and the other district school sites are subject to a limit of 40 percent,'' said district Capital Projects Manager Brandy Matthews-Fox.

``This (constraint) limits development on any (district) site,'' she continued. ``It virtually incapacitates any development at high school site and limits any changes to elementary sites, such as adding a couple of classrooms, instead (for example) building a new school to reduce class size.''

But despite the error, the board voted 4-0 to choose the site to be studied further. The board vote also authorized the team to put in motion the request for a code amendment to allow the proposal to move forward. Board member John Fry was absent.

It may be easy to understand how planners made the mistake. At West Mercer Elementary School, 49 percent of the site is paved or covered. Island Park Elementary is just under the limit at 38 or 39 percent. The high school is already well over, at 53 percent. Islander Middle School is close to the 40 percent limit because of the playfield (leased to the city) between it and Lakeridge Elementary School.

Project planners met with the city's development services director, Richard Hart, and his staff about the issue. According to Matthews-Fox, Hart recommended that the district, in conjunction with the Boys & Girls Club, bring forth a petition for a code amendment that schools, churches and clubs can exceed the 40 percent (limit) up to 60 percent with mitigation.

Examples of mitigation include use of porous materials for paving and sidewalks, landscaping and green building techniques.

The board voted to select the western site after hearing a summary of the advantages and disadvantages of the two preliminary locations from project architect, Ed Weinstein. The western site is north of the school district transportation building, south of the district-leased CHILD school and is bordered on the west by 86th Avenue S.E.

The other site considered, called the central site, would have been placed on the northern edge of the football field. The 30-foot-high building on the western site would be set into the edge of the slope.

City Councilman Bryan Cairnes, who attended the meeting, pointed out that each will require the same amount of parking.

Planners have already been looking at reconfiguring existing parking around the site to yield more spaces.

``Either site will require that we have to be imaginative about parking,'' Weinstein said.

Parking will range from 100 to 300 or even 400 spaces depending on whether the building will be classified as an assembly facility or not, said Weinstein.

``We are going to have to qualify what is going to happen inside it if we want to get it down to the lower end of the (parking) range,'' he said. ``On the other hand if the community and the school district want maximum flexibility for that facility, then we are going to have to think about a different kind of presentation in terms of any covenant.''

Matthews-Fox is optimistic about the chances of a code amendment. She pointed to language in the city's recently updated comprehensive plan that supports public uses such as schools, churches and clubs.

``The city told us that we could probably get it through in three months and keep within the project schedule,'' she said.

``It is not a slam dunk,'' she cautioned.

The design team held a meeting with neighbors on Aug. 2. The group said it mailed 600 letters to neighbors in July, but only 15 came to the meeting. Another dozen or so who attended were project planners and supporters.

As to be expected, the major topics were parking and traffic. There are more neighborhood meetings planned for the future.

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