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Senior students examine the Spring District during International School's Focus Week
Most weeks, students of Wilburton’s International School are challenged to think globally, applying lessons from their core curriculum to interactions across the world.
But on April 4, senior students gathered in Andrew Ivy’s classroom were looking a little closer to home: less than two miles north toward the site of the coming Spring District. Wright Runstad & Co. President Greg Johnson was on hand to explain the vision of the mixed-use commercial and residential project, as well as the process of making such a large-scale project happen. Later he would take the class on a tour of the 36-acre site itself.
The group of seniors — who had all chosen “Go Urban!” as their area of study for Focus Week — had spent every day that week venturing out of the classroom to look at neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and South Lake Union, considering subjects like gentrification and the challenges of construction in already densely developed areas.
“For the most part, these are new ideas to the kids,” Ivy, normally an international studies instructor, said.
Focus Week, held March 31 to April 4 this year, is International School’s method of ensuring their students graduate with required occupational and elective credits, as well as a means of introducing concepts not covered in the classroom setting. For each of the seven years they spend at International, students pick one of nearly two dozen foci to explore: they might tour one of the city’s many video game studios in a design course, take their ideas for short films from script to screen, or draw their own floor plans in “Architecture 101.”
“The purpose of the week is to expose kids to these careers that are out there,” principal Jennifer Rose said. “To find out what aspects of a career engages them. Or doesn’t. They can take the academic work they already do and see how it applies in the real world.”
After introducing himself and his role as president (“We have about 72 people working for Wright Runstad,” Johnson said. “My role is to help conceptualize new projects and then get out of the way.”), Johnson showed students a map of Bellevue with the Spring District highlighted.
“An analysis of any project stars at this level to understand how it affects the area,” Johnson said. “Planning in an urban area … you need to understand the regional context. Where do people live? Where do they work? Where do they want to be?
“The site’s location at an intersection where you have major freeways is where it starts to become interesting, because so many people are coming by already. It’s something to think about.”
Johnson segued into a discussion of the East Link light rail project and how Wright Runstad had accounted for rail commuters in its plans for the Spring District. Ivy chimed in to point out the relative difficulty of bringing rail transit to a built-up democratic municipal government like Seattle compared to Dubai, where he had lived eight years and seen rail installed quickly.
“How does it go across water?” student Samuel Winter asked. “Does it go across the bridge?”
“It does, it will go across that center partition on the bridge,” Johnson said. “The idea is to make sure the rail goes where people go. So you have Microsoft here, University of Washington here. Then you have airports, Renton. When you’re planning a transit system you have to think about those things and you want to think about those things because the free flow of people and ideas matters.”
Johnson discussed the expected population increases in the Bellevue area, how they factored into the city’s zoning policies for the Bel-Red corridor and how those affected the plan for the Spring District. The plan called for mostly commercial space — but no major shopping centers — with some residential buildings. By setting policy, the city council laid out how they wanted their community to grow, Johnson said.
“So do private companies just have to follow the plan?” a student asked.
“It has the force of law, so yes,” Johnson said. “However, if you want to do something you can’t do, you can ask for a variance.”
“So there are inducements for (businesses and residences) to transition to the plan,” Ivy added. “There are pieces of this zoning plan that nudge people along.”
Several students asked how the developer planned to convince people and businesses to populate the District once it was built. While acknowledging that could be an uncertainty of land development, Johnson said he hoped a brewhouse and food trucks would bring attract adults. Housing, in the form of an apartment complex expected to be completed in 2016, could bring a first wave of people in as well, he said.
“What would you like to see?” he asked.
One student suggested grocery stores. Another suggested a farmer’s market and yet another suggested more green space.
“Maybe a center where everyone can congregate,” student Melody Saysana said. “Like a pool.”
Later Saysana asked what the benefit was of building the Spring District in phases.
“That’s a great question: Why not build it all at once?” Johnson said. “We were talking earlier about risk and risky ventures. If you build it all at once and then we go into an economic downturn, then companies aren’t expanding. And they aren’t going to rent that space from you. People aren’t going to move to the area and they aren’t going to rent that apartment. So what we like to do is just build enough so we can meet the demand that we see for the next few years. And we know we can start building more if the demand keeps coming. But I can assure you as you go through the arc of your careers, every seven to 10 years you will see an economic downturn.”