Near-Future Designs: A Walkable Olympic Hills Elementary

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If Feet First had a nickel for every school that wanted to redesign part of the campus to increase pedestrian safety, we’d be rich!


But how often do we get invited into the conversation about how to design walkable schools before they are built? With increasing frequency, it turns out! And now credit is due to the people and policies making it happen.


Olympic-Hills-Elementary 1952 building
     Olympic Hills as it exists today

One example unfolding right now is Olympic Hills Elementary School (OHE) in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood. This 1950’s one-story structure is slated to be demolished and rebuilt as part of the Building Excellence Capital Levy (BEX IV), which was approved by Seattle voters in February 2013. McGranahan Architects won the bid for the 40 million dollar project, and began its four-year process by convening a School Design Advisory Team, or SDAT. Because of our Safe Routes to School work with OHE, Principal Helen Joung invited the Feet First Safe Routes to School Director, Jen Cole, to join the SDAT.


“I feel like I died and went to heaven,” explains Jen. “I get to work with a team of amazing experts on everything from educational standards to structural engineering. Plus, I get a constructive forum to share the information I’ve gleaned about making schools more walkable.”


Cherry Crest Elementary School in Bellevue

The SDAT team recently took a tour of exceptional educational facilities, traveling to Seattle’s University District, Bellevue and Snohomish County to examine newer school construction. Besides soaking in information about the buildings themselves, Jen kept a critical eye on the campus surroundings. Is there appealing and direct pedestrian access to the school, or do pedestrians need to cross several driveways to reach the front door? Is bicycle parking covered and visible? Does a large, centrally-located parking lot send the message that driving is the expected travel mode for the community? Cherry Crest Elementary School in Bellevue was a favorite for the SDAT. Despite space constraints, the designers here resisted placing the parking lot across the entire front face of the school. The result is a campus that is equally accessible by bike, foot, wheel, or tire. It was no surprise to see bikes in the rack and to hear that this school has a large percentage of student walkers.


SDAT Eco Charrette
Preparations for the SDAT Eco-Charrette

Jen particularly enjoyed the Eco-Charrette in early January, in which the SDAT team met with Seattle Public School Facilities staff to discuss what Architect Mitch Kent called our “ecological aspirations” for the future building. Following the Washington State Sustainable Schools Protocol, the group was given several categories ripe with potential to help approach the ideal carbon-neutral building. Options such as geo-thermal heating, re-purposing materials, and to carpet or not to carpet? filled a lively conversation. Not surprisingly, transportation issues factored heavily in the discussion. “What felt exciting to me,” explains Jen, “was the ability to take the inspirational discussion to the operational level — how to design for walkability, how to build it, and how to live in it once it is realized.”


The SDAT team at Olympic Hills is just one example in a growing pool of opportunities for Feet First to be proactive with walkable school designs. Stay tuned for future blog posts with more examples about walkability planning in our schools.





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