Owen Blauman can remember a different time on Mercer Island, when his school was a community gathering place and the neighborhood looked very different. The sounds of birds chirping at the former East Seattle Elementary School building today used to be accompanied by the sounds of children at play, he said.
“This was the hub, we played here,” Blauman said, recalling how neighborhood kids congregated there, riding bikes or playing baseball. “This was the nucleus of the neighborhood.”
He shared his sadness at seeing the state of the property today and his desire to see the old school building preserved in some way, as he feels it solely represents the historic East Seattle neighborhood. What’s now an area filled with many homes was not always so.
“There’s nothing on the Island anymore, none of the heritage of what used to be here. … No structures,” he said. “Is that what residents want?”
Blauman attended school there from Kindergarten to third grade when the school closed. Members of his family also attended or even worked there — his grandmother worked in the cafeteria.
“A lot of memories here, but there’s no upkeep,” he said. “It’s evident there’s no respect for the building. You’d think there’d be respect for this neighborhood.”
Today, anyone driving by the property can see trash, broken glass on the ground, old playground equipment encircled by thorns, parked cars and shuttle service. The building is boarded and visibly worn.
“I don’t think you want your kids coming to play here anymore,” Blauman said.
While Blauman and the Reporter walked by the property, a little girl and her father walked through it.
“There’s no reason that little girl shouldn’t have been able to play on that playground equipment,” Blauman said. “There’s no reason this jungle gym couldn’t have been maintained for little kids here to play on.”
Evan Maxim, city Community Planning and Development director, said the city had received and resolved complaints around site safety in the Fall 2019. He said the most recent complaint was related to rodents in the context of demolition of the building.
“The city’s standard approach is to contact the property owner to determine whether a nuisance exists and to seek voluntary compliance as needed. If a nuisance is actually present and voluntary compliance is not provided, the city has various tools to ensure compliance,” Maxim said in an email. “In this case, the property owner’s representative, who is an active user of the building, immediately contacted the city and indicated that there was no current problem related to rodents on the site. The property owner is also aware that the city intends to require rodent abatement if demolition of the East Seattle School building is approved.”
The former school building constructed in 1914 is now the oldest standing once-public building on Mercer Island, and one of only a few built before 1920, according to the Mercer Island Historical Society. The property is now privately owned by Michael O’Brien, who purchased it in 2007 for $6 million, well above the then King County appraised value of $2.6 million.
According to Reporter archives, O’Brien had shared intentions to have the property grounds developed into baseball fields and the like, keeping the space a safe one for neighborhood children to play at. He said he would spend an additional $2 million to develop such fields.
The Boys and Girls Club of King County, leasing the property for $1 per year, was to be responsible for maintaining the fields and the gym — built in 1990.
The city is currently reviewing two applications for the property: The demolition of the former school building, and subdivision of the property into 14 residential lots. The city is collecting written public comments on the issue until March 26 after residents asked them to extend the deadline.
At a Feb. 27 public meeting to discuss a draft Environmental Impact Study – in the works due to potentially significant impacts to the historic value of the property – about 20 people attended and voiced questions and concerns.
Beyond hopes to preserve all or parts of the building, community members at the meeting also expressed concerns about the property regarding its upkeep, current use, and safety for the neighborhood. Folks complained about the state of the property, the grounds being run down, littered, and overgrown.
They also had questions about parking on site, as there seems to be some company using the space for its employees to park and shuttle to work. A bus can be seen picking commuters up in the mornings and delivering them back to their cars in the evenings, like a private park and ride.
City staff answered questions, as well as Eric Hansen, representative of Michael O’Brien.
Hansen at the meeting said O’Brien, after purchasing the property, had essentially leased it to the Boys and Girls Club for free and allowed the community to keep using the space while he continued to pay property taxes on it for the last 13 years or so.
Hansen said O’Brien allowed the deferred maintenance on the property as seen now, so that the Boys and Girls Club wouldn’t have to pay for it, because they are supposed to have been keeping up the property this whole time. He said that instead of the club incurring the costs of maintaining the property in the state of what it was 13 years ago, the money stayed in the community.
“He’s given everything,” Hansen said, speaking of O’Brien’s generosity. “He paid fair market price, above that for the time. There was a lease on the property. It’s expired. The whole intent at the time that he leased the property to the Boys and Girls Club for free was if he paid this price, he would give this back to the community, at the end it would be developed. That’s what it was the entire time. Nothing has changed from our perspective.”
Who is parking on site?
He also addressed the question about the parking on site. One person at the meeting asked how much money O’Brien receives from the “lease for parking space to Amazon” and what that money is used for. Hansen responded with, “They’re paying the Boys and Girls Club, not us. They’re not allowed to in the lease, but we allow them to. The money should be going to us but we diverted to them. … They’re using it to buy basketballs or jerseys or something like that. I don’t know.”
Amazon did not tespond to request for comment.
On March 6, Lorraine Montez, marketing and communications director for the Boys & Girls Club of King County, answered questions in a brief phone call with The Reporter, agreeing to answer further questions later the next week. In the phone call, she said that the Boys & Girls Club did not know anything about parking on-site, contradicting Hansen’s statements from the previous meeting. In the next week, Montez declined multiple attempts to interview and to respond to the apparent contradiction, and declined to interview, offering only a statement to The Reporter.
“Michael O’Brien has always been and continues to be a strong and valued supporter of Boys & Girls Clubs of King County. After he purchased the building he leased the property back to us at a greatly discounted rate so we could continue to use the gym for our youth,” the statement read. “His support of the club is crucial to our work to provide a safe, positive place for out of school activities for all young people in our community. We are grateful for this support, especially for our Mercer Island Club.”
Montez and the Boys & Girls Club of King County, like everywhere else in the county, has been dealing with complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Montez said she and colleagues were busy with transitioning fundraisers online and other response work.
Hansen said in an email the same week that they had offered their comments for the DEIS and did not want to respond to questions from The Reporter.