Council halts bond program for schoolhouse renovation

  • Written by Briana Gerdeman

Old SchoolhouseVoters will not have the chance to vote in April on a bond to renovate the old Woodinville schoolhouse, the City Council decided last week. But the council discussed other projects: finding a public-private partnership to develop the schoolhouse, creating a riverfront district along the Sammamish River and installing gateway and wayfinding signs throughout the city.

A survey of 242 Woodinville voters found that a slim majority, 54 percent, support a $12 million bond to pay for renovating the old schoolhouse and constructing parking nearby.

However, the bond would need a supermajority of 60 percent to pass. Less than half of voters surveyed support a levy that would fund the schoolhouse’s maintenance and operations.

In addition to the "somewhat tepid support" for the bond, city staff have other concerns about the schoolhouse, said Alexandra Sheeks, assistant to the city manager. The city has no operational need for the building and lacks income property management skills and experience, she said. Staff are also concerned with finding occupants and that the building won’t bring in enough money to cover operating expenses.

Mayor Bernie Talmas, Deputy Mayor James Evans and Councilmembers Scott Hageman, Les Rubstello and Paula Waters suggested finding a private developer or establishing a public-private partnership could be the best way to develop the schoolhouse.

"Nobody likes the ongoing maintenance, the fact that we’re saddled with that, we don’t know where that’s going to come from. We’d like to have the [building] 100 percent filled; we don’t know if it will," Rubstello said. "We can put that kind of risk on a developer. We give up some control, but I think we’re hearing now that we’d rather give up a little control than be saddled with ongoing maintenance."

Councilmember Liz Aspen said that when the city considered a public-private partnership in the past, she didn’t support it because the private developers wanted to use much of civic campus, because the schoolhouse is too small to be financially viable on its own.

"I really do hold sacred public land, that we have acquired for our citizens and what we fondly refer to as our civic campus, and I would hate to give that up to condos to preserve our schoolhouse," Aspen said.

Aspen also wondered how to preserve the historic building until it can be developed.

"It’s going to deteriorate," City Manager Richard Leahy said. "Unless there’s people in it and we maintain it, the buildings deteriorate faster, in my experience, when they’re not used on a regular basis."

Hageman, Aspen and Councilmember Susan Boundy-Sanders said they support putting a bond measure on the ballot so the public can decide what to do with the schoolhouse.

Even though she thinks the bond is unlikely to pass, Boundy-Sanders said, "I feel like I’ve made a commitment to citizens to offer this to them for their consideration, rather than us guessing, even though we have a relatively good questionnaire."

Ultimately, a narrow majority of the council – Talmas, Evans, Rubstello and Waters – didn’t support putting a bond measure on the ballot. The council directed city staff to halt the bond process and look into requests for proposals (RFPs) for a public-private partnership.

"I think it’s a waste of our time and money to proceed with a bond at this point, in light of the survey results, the cost and everything else that’s come up, including the ongoing maintenance and operations expenses," Talmas said.

Paul Cowles, a citizen who has often commented that renovating the schoolhouse is too expensive, said the city needs to set constraints on RFPs but also think of creative solutions.

"We have been spending too much time thinking inside the box as far as this building," Cowles said. "...What you need to preserve is probably the entrance to the building as far as landmark preservation. Let the private sector tell you how they can make this thing work."

The council also discussed updating the comprehensive plan, a process the city must complete by June 2015. State and county growth targets require Woodinville to create more housing and more jobs.

Consultants hired by the city suggested that as the city plans for the next 20 years, it could also create a riverfront area along the Sammamish River between the tourist district and downtown. That space is now an industrial district, but Bob Bengford, a consultant from MAKERS Architecture and Urban Design, suggested that it could also be used for retail, tourism, office or residential uses.

Bengford noted that wineries are already opening in that area, and the river is "such an amenity." The 800 feet of space between the Sammamish River and State Route 202 is large enough for a development such as the Rivertrail townhomes in Redmond.

"That riverfront idea sounds very exciting. I’d just like to be clear that the appeal of that area is not so much the river," Waters pointed out. "It’s basically a slough. What the real appeal is is the valley and the vista."

Hageman suggested a pedestrian bridge connecting retail or residential developments to the existing trail – perhaps a project on which Woodinville could partner with King County.

The council also directed staff to keep working on the gateway and wayfinding sign programs. Sheeks explained that the gateway signs would be installed at major entrance points to the city. The wayfinding signs would include large directional signs for drivers, smaller directional signs for pedestrians and signs that would designate specific districts of the city.

The council discussed what style of signs would be best, but the sign program raises other questions.

"We’d like to go out with a public process to determine some of the district names," Sheeks said. "We’ve heard some of the feedback from the business community that perhaps the tourist district or the warehouse district might not be the best-fitting names for those areas."

The city will also need to develop a policy for wayfinding signs, including who gets to be on the signs and how those are maintained, she added.

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