Parkland School advocates score two victories in preservation campaign
Neighbors of Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) in Parkland on Tuesday night, June 21 chalked up two victories in their continuing battle to save the old 1908 Parkland School – which PLU owns and wants to demolish.
Parkland School is in Parkland on Pacific Avenue – also known as State Route 7 or the road to Mount Rainier. PLU bought it 30 years ago from Franklin Pierce School District and used it for a number of purposes. It’s been vacant for four years, and PLU says they have tried to find a local partner to do something with it, but have not been successful. PLU is planning to sell the old school and the land it sits on to a developer who will tear it down and build apartments.
PLU and their intended buyer began the process earlier this year to secure a demolition permit and to get the building removed from the Pierce County Landmark Register. According to Kirk Rector, one of the partners in the group aiming to buy the property, his group began looking into Parkland School three years ago.
Meanwhile, the community only found out five weeks ago about any of PLU’s plans for the beloved building, which many Parkland residents believe would be perfect for a community center or civic campus – the latter if Parkland were to ever incorporate.
On Tuesday night, the Pierce County Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission held their regular monthly meeting at the Pierce County Annex in Tacoma. Five commissioners, including chair Robert Koreis, attended via Zoom, while an estimated 100 people showed up in person.
The commission had two action items on the agenda: to make recommendations to the Pierce County Planning and Public Works Department on PLU’s request for a demolition permit, and to weigh in on PLU’s request that Parkland School be removed from Pierce County’s landmark register.
No PLU staff attended the meeting in person or spoke via Zoom. However, before the public comment period began, the project architect for the developer PLU is hoping to sell the land spent several minutes presenting a summary of the group’s plans for the site.
Kent Smutny of Veer Architects showed images of the planned apartment complex and talked about the drawbacks of attempting to preserve Parkland School. Smutny said that asbestos and lead paint and other issues would need to be addressed, and would make renovation costs an estimated $28 million. No price tag was revealed for the construction of the new complex.
The designs Smutny shared appear to make concessions to the community outcry over the potential loss of Parkland School that’s been on display via social media, at public rallies and on printed flyers in the past month or so.
“We would respect the Parkland School’s history and even to the extent that the plan for the new building would incorporate and reflect the original proportions of the school,” Smutny told the commissioners and others gathered for the meeting. “And we would utilize elements from the original building throughout the new building – I mean such elements as window patterns, the cornice treatment on the school and even right down to the main entrance.”
“We would look at basically mimicking the entrance on the school that we’re all familiar with,” Smutny said.
And it was this “mimicking” part of Smutny’s design which seemed to touch a nerve with several people in attendance – including a former student named Carol Miller who spoke during the public comment period.
“I wasn’t planning on speaking this evening, but I can’t let it go,” Miller said, just one of several people who prefaced their comments with similar sentiments. “I know it’s not supposed to go this way, but I went to Parkland [for] K[indergarten] through 6[th grade], and I just feel insulted in the fact that first of all everything was hush-hush.”
“And then there was an [initial] design by the developers,” Miller continued. “And then all of a sudden, I learned tonight it’s changed, and they made [the revised design] look like Parkland Elementary School, and they think we’re going to go away.”
At that point, the Parkland School supporters laughed and cheered.
“They think we’re going to go away,” Miller repeated. “I’m sorry, [but] with all due respect, it’s just not enough. It’s just not enough.”
As for the asbestos and other issues which Smutny mentioned, several of those who spoke asked for more detailed information or for a neutral party to prepare an alternate estimate.
Susan Ryan, a woman from Tacoma, summed up what a lot of other people had expressed regarding the possible challenges with preserving and restoring Parkland School.
“I have heard these comments many times about ‘the building has asbestos, the building is derelict, the building has this, it’s the lead paint,’ so on and so on,” Ryan said. “And it’s not always true and often it isn’t true, but I see this being used so often as a deterrent, and those wishing to sell their properties use it to their advantage to do that.”
“I applaud the people in this community that have turned out for this,” Ryan then said, turning toward the seated audience. “This room is full, and there’s people in the lobby.”
And in that full room were a range of people from in and around Parkland, including a few dozen wearing red shirts and representing the group called Save Our Historic Parkland School.
But the red-shirted fans weren’t the only people there who had something to say. Several people spoke who said they had only just learned about the threat to Parkland School, including many who don’t live in Parkland anymore, but who took time on Tuesday night in early summer to come and say a few words.
Among the alumni who spoke was 40-year-old Pierce County Sheriff’s, Deputy Charles Lincoln. Lincoln went to Kindergarten at Parkland School in the 1980s and read about Tuesday’s meeting at a motorcycle show on Sunday.
“I saw this little flyer and my jaw hit the ground. I could not believe that this was even a possibility of losing the community school,” Lincoln said, speaking only in his civilian capacity, and clearly moved by the large gathering and the passionate remarks being made in support of his alma mater.
“You want to pull a community together?” Lincoln continued. “Tear down a school. I don’t have anything else to say. You’re not tearing down the school.”
One of the most passionate speakers was 24-year-old Parkland native and PLU student Gunnar Johnson.
“The historic Parkland School is not a derelict building, it has been actively neglected by Pacific Lutheran University,” Johnson said. “Forgive us for not having a formal proposal with renderings and impact statements for a project that we as a community were kept in the dark about until a month ago.”
“We will not be treated as a bunch of sentimental fools for demanding that our history not be treated as disposable,” Johnson continued. “It is not our desire to be openly hostile to anyone in this room – to the developers, members of this commission – we want to work with you on this.”
“Let the community of Parkland in on this project,” Johnson said, to roaring applause.
It was close to 9:00 p.m. when Pierce County Landmarks and Historic Preservation Chairman Robert Koreis called for a vote. A motion was made and then seconded to recommend not issuing a demolition permit to Pacific Lutheran University for Parkland School.
“Okay, seeing no discussion,” Koreis said. “All in favor?”
It was hard to hear all the “ayes” via the Zoom audio, but when it was all over, five of five commissioners in attendance voted in favor of denying the demolition permit.
“It’s unanimous,” Koreis said. “We recommend that the county deny the current application for a demolition permit.”
The room and lobby – and, presumably, a little corner of the Zoomosphere – erupted in applause. PLU’s representatives – architect Kent Smutny, property manager Kirk Rector and builder Reed Kelley – sat stone-faced at a table adjacent to the podium where the Parkland School advocates had made their case. The three men each declined when given the opportunity to speak with KIRO Newsradio at the conclusion of the meeting.
Crowd reacts as Pierce County Landmarks & Historic Preservation Commission votes unanimously to deny @PLUNEWS‘s request for a demolition permit for Parkland School; recommendation now goes to Planning Commission & County Council.@KIRONewsradio @Mynorthwest @PreserveWA pic.twitter.com/WkO8dvdlAx
— Feliks Banel (@FeliksBanel) June 22, 2022
While the commission’s vote denying the demolition permit was a victory for the Parkland School supporters, it has the potential to be merely symbolic. The Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission serves only in an advisory capacity for demolition permits, and their vote is not binding in any way for the Pierce County Planning and Public Works Department, the agency that would actually issue any permit.
Thus, according to a Pierce County staff member at the meeting Tuesday night, Planning and Public Works will also review PLU’s demolition permit application via the State Environmental; Protection Act or “SEPA” process. Theoretically, if everything checks out, they could still grant the permit.
The second vote – on PLU’s request to remove Parkland School from the Pierce County Landmark Register – was also unanimous in favor of denying the request. That vote carries more weight and may be final. Had the commission voted in favor of removing Parkland School from the register, one more public meeting would have been scheduled for discussion, and the Pierce County Council would ultimately have the final say on whether the building would be removed from the landmark register.
Joel Green, one of the commissioners, gave the community members their marching orders for what he believes should happen next.
“PLU still owns the land, still owns the building,” Green said. “I would say to the community to definitely reach out to PLU and make your voices heard because they’re the people that are going to decide whether to let this go . . . and you know there’s a thousand different directions.”
“I commend the community,” Green continued. “I heard the need for a community center, and I’m in the community as well. That was fantastic . . . if that’s what you want to do with it, it’s going to be a partnership with Pacific Lutheran University.”
In a written statement shared late Tuesday night after the meeting, PLU reiterated the 30-day pause in the sale of the building which they first mentioned last Friday in a letter to Pierce County Commissioners Jani Hitchen and Marty Campbell, making no mention of the two unanimous votes denying their requests.
“We appreciate the thoughtful discussion and community feedback shared at tonight’s Pierce County Landmarks & Historic Preservation Commission meeting,” PLU Director of Communications Zach Powers wrote. “PLU has asked, and the purchasing group has agreed, to pause the close of the purchase and sale agreement for approximately 30 days so that we might reengage area agencies and organizations anew to confirm whether they still have no viable alternative plans for the property.”
“We look forward to continued discussions about this property with Pierce County and other organizations that share our commitment to the long-term health and prosperity of Parkland,” Powers, who said he monitored the meeting via Zoom, wrote.
Pierce County Commissioner Jani Hitchen – a PLU alum whose district includes Parkland School and much of Parkland – also shared a written statement with KIRO Newsradio late Tuesday.
“The Landmark and Preservation Commission voted this evening 5-0 to deny the demolition permit and 5-0 against removing it from the Historic registry,” Hitchen wrote. “Both votes are truly recommendations made to the land owner, but [I’m] hoping this gives both PLU and the possible developers incentives to continue the pause.”
“I believe that the comments made by the community and the follow-up by the commissioners really identified the crux of the problem,” Hitchen continued. “The community wants to save the school. They have some ideas but don’t have a funding plan. I will continue to work as a bridge for communication with different partners. I believe that if we presented PLU with a plan that makes sense for them in regards to the financial concerns that they have, and would be an improvement to the Parkland community, PLU would work together to make it happen. They are in a tough spot, but I continue to hope that they will give us enough time to find a path forward.”
Future regulatory decisions by Pierce County Planning and Public Works aside, the speakers at Tuesday’s meeting and the two unanimous votes send a clear message to PLU about how the community feels about Parkland School. Given the strong emotions expressed about how the project has been conducted so far by PLU and the likely buyers – and given the lack of dialog so far between PLU and its Parkland neighbors – it seems that some third party will be essential for brokering a solution and maybe finding a way to forge a stronger relationship between the private college and its neighbors. This might be a role for Councilmember Hitchen.
It’s also worth pointing out that PLU and their professional real estate, architecture and development partners and other consultants have spent three years crafting plans for the Parkland School site. It remains unclear what PLU expects a grassroots group of neighbors and volunteers to come up with in just 30 days.
You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.