Owen Blauman/courtesy photo. A drone picture of the former East Seattle Elementary School building.

Owen Blauman/courtesy photo. A drone picture of the former East Seattle Elementary School building.

To demolish or not to demolish?

Mercer Island weighs environmental impacts of proposed East Seattle School site development.

The city will soon decide whether to issue a demolition permit for the privately-owned former East Seattle School building that was constructed in 1914. Several community members expressed concerns at a recent meeting, and the public can submit written comments until March 11.

There are two applications under review by the city for the property (located at 2825 West Mercer Way). They applications are for: demolition of the former East Seattle School building, and subdivision of the property into 14 residential lots.

Right now the city is weighing options as well as potential environmental impacts for the proposed demolition, submitted in 2017, and collecting community input. Demolition could be in May at the earliest, city staff said.

Robin Proebsting, senior planner, said the city is always interested in hearing as much comment as possible.

“The issues raised [at the meeting] were a great summary of the issues behind this project. The property owner would like to do something, and community members would like something else to happen,” she said. “We’re trying to process the permit that the property owner applied for. We want to look at all of the options, give everyone due process and problem solve together.”

Proebsting said the city previously, while undergoing a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review to evaluate potential environmental impacts for the proposal, took some public comment, received a letter from the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, and ultimately determined there could be significant impacts, especially to the historical value of the property.

Subsequently, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is being done by the city’s consultant, EA engineering, Science and Technology, and paid for by the city. While the applicant will end up reimbursing the city for the cost of the EIS, since the work is being done on their behalf, the contract remains private between the city and the consultant.

A draft EIS has been completed, and it can be read in full on the city’s Let’s Talk website. The consultant and city staff explained that the draft EIS is not a decision making document but rather is informative. It outlines different options and analyzes potential impacts.

Meeting

A public meeting was held on Feb. 27 at the Mercer Island Community and Event Center to discuss the draft EIS. About 20 people attended.

The conversation quickly became tense as community members expressed desires to preserve all or part of the building — particularly its archway that several called “iconic,” “unique,” and “beautiful.”

Reasons for preservation ranged from nostalgia or wanting to preserve Mercer Island’s history, to wishing for less development on the Island or wanting to improve the property as a place for neighborhood children to play. Some were alumni of the school, and some were historians.

There were also concerns shared about the upkeep of the property, or lack thereof, and neighborhood safety, as well as the current uses of the back parking lot and gym which was added in 1990. Additionally, there was some discussion about different forms of mitigation to creatively memorialize the site and honor the history of the neighborhood.

The school building was constructed in 1914 and, according to the Mercer Island Historical Society, is the oldest once-public building on the Island that is still standing today. The building was a public school into the 1970s, and then it was home to a Boys & Girls Club for some 30 years after that.

However, the building is no longer public. It was purchased by Michael and Billi Jo O’Brien in 2007 for $6 million — well above the then county appraised value for the property of $2.6 million.

According to Reporter archives, Michael O’Brien had shared a goal of constructing ball fields and a playground on the property, and a desire to keep it as a safe place for Island children to play. He said he would hold on to the property for 10 years and planned to lease the property to the Boys & Girls Club for $1 per year, with them being responsible for managing the fields and gym.

Several attendees of the Feb. 27 meeting said they were thankful for O’Brien’s years of generosity in allowing the space to be used by both the Boys & Girls Club and the community. Some hope to appeal to that generosity again as they petition to save all or a portion of the building.

Draft EIS

City staff, the consultant, and Eric Hanson, a representative of property owner Michael O’Brien, were all there to answer questions and go over the draft EIS.

The draft EIS addresses the demolition permit application and outlines alternatives and scenarios, including the property owner’s proposal, and analyzes the impact to the historical value of the property for each scenario. It also discusses possible ways to mitigate the impacts.

There are two alternatives: Demolish the building (as proposed by the property owner) and do some mitigation such as memorial-like signage, or not demolish the building. Within the latter, there are two scenarios — leave the building alone, continuing its current condition with no interference, or rehabilitate the building for alternative use.

Demolishing the building would significantly impact the historic value of the property, as would the second option of leaving the building alone, which would essentially see the building fenced off and left to eventually fall on its own, city staff explained at the meeting.

The draft EIS identified the only option that would not significantly impact the historic value as adaptive reuse. Someone could buy and repurpose the building, which would take bringing it up to code at high costs.

City stance

Evan Maxim, the city’s Community Planning and Development director, at the meeting explained that right now the city is only deciding whether to issue a demolition permit. He said he does not anticipate this issue coming before the city council.

He said there would be further consideration of other types of environmental impacts later down the road. Subdivision would require a public hearing that could take place as soon as late August but is not yet scheduled.

Maxim later told the Reporter that the city does not have a preference among the three options presented in the draft EIS.

“We do not have a stance on the alternatives. We have a proposal, which is to demolish the building and do mitigation,” he said. He said they are looking at the two scenarios in the no action alternative, and so far the city has not identified a preferred alternative.

Maxim said the city would be open to the opportunity for adaptive reuse, as it would be the least impactful.

“The reason the city is open to this idea and would encourage it is that it would not result in a significant impact to the historical resource,” Maxim said.

Owner’s stance

Hanson at the meeting made it clear that the owner’s intention is to demolish the building and develop the property, as proposed.

However, he did also say the option of selling the property for reuse could be a possibility, if someone approached them to discuss that. He noted that doing so would be expensive and difficult, as the building is severely run down, unsafe and not compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations. So far, he said that no one has approached them with any such ideas.

He also said that the possibility of removing and preserving the archway had previously been explored. He said it would not only be costly to do so but also be basically impossible — or at least extremely difficult — structurally, since the building is cast concrete and the archway is heavy.

The city is also unaware of any such buyers or groups suggesting a plan to purchase and repurpose the space.

Further comment

Some community members have shown a great deal of passion in wanting to see the building preserved, including East Seattle Elementary School alumna Katherine “Kit” Malmfeldt, who organized the June 2019 reunion that brought about 150 alumni together at the school property.

“Nostalgia aside, it’s a beautiful building,” she said.

Some people said they are sad to see few buildings constructed before 1920 still standing on the Island.

“It hurts my heart. People ask why I fight. I’m not fighting, I’m sick. We are losing every piece of history on this Island,” said resident Sharon Setzler.

Owen Blauman, an alumnus of the school, asked, “How can we as a community rally and capture all this passion so there’s something of real historical value left for people to look at and learn from?”

Hanson declined to provide any further comments or share contact information for follow up.

The final EIS is anticipated to be completed in late April.

Written comments can be sent via email to robin.proebsting@mercergov.org or by mail, addressed to: Robin Proebsting, senior planner community planning and development, city of Mercer Island, 9611 SE 36th St., Mercer Island, WA 98040-3732.


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Natalie DeFord/staff photo
                                A February 27 public meeting was held at the Mercer Island Community and Event Center to discuss a draft Environmental Impact Statement in relation to the proposed demolition of the former East Seattle Elementary School building.

Natalie DeFord/staff photo A February 27 public meeting was held at the Mercer Island Community and Event Center to discuss a draft Environmental Impact Statement in relation to the proposed demolition of the former East Seattle Elementary School building.

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