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The Olympian, March 2010

Busy school drop-off to get makeover
Northeast Neighborhood: Group Pushed for Change

MATT BATCHELDOR; Staff Writer

Published March 30, 2010

OLYMPIA - The drop-off area at Roosevelt Elementary School is unsafe. Bikers, walkers and cars all converge at one spot - the busy intersection where Bethel Street dead-ends at San Francisco Avenue and the entrance to Roosevelt's parking lot. Two crossing guards, both children, try to make sure pedestrians run the gantlet safely.

“It’s just a catastrophe waiting to happen,” said Callie Jones, who bikes to school with her daughter Kayla, 7, and tows her son, Logan, 3, and sometimes her daughter Kelsi, 5, behind her.

But an improvement is on the way this summer, when a new, more formal drop-off is installed, around the corner, eliminating the traffic conflict. The change comes thanks to the Northeast Neighborhood Association, one of many victories for the city’s largest neighborhood association.

Neighbors lobbied for the changes for six years, even spending grant money and hiring an engineer to draw up the improvements, association president Peter Guttchen said. They put together a project budget and timeline. They wrote letters to the fire department, the city community planning and development department and transportation officials. The group went to community meetings and to school board meetings. They partnered with city staff members.

“We did the leg work to give them the kind of data that they need to make decisions,” said Guttchen, who has headed the association since 2000. It’s the largest of the city’s patchwork of 41 registered neighborhood associations, five of which are inactive, according to the city. It has 200 members and covers the most ground: the northeast hills overlooking East Bay.

The new drop-off area, at a cost of about $100,000, was included in the school levy that voters approved last month, Guttchen said.

Roosevelt Principal Domenico Spatola-Knoll said the proposed plan looks like a good one.

“It’s a good, positive relationship,” he said. “Our school benefits, our kids benefit from it and our community benefits from it.”

It’s the latest in a string of efforts to make the neighborhood more walkable and more attractive, with more public spaces and events to bring people together.

Like other neighborhood associations, it was born of conflict.

In the late 1980s, city officials were considering using federal housing money for a housing development in what is now Mission Creek Nature Park.

Neighbors opposed the move, and worked with the owners for a sale. The city relented and bought the land for a park in 2001. But the neighborhood’s work wasn’t done. “There were a lot of transients that lived back there,” he said. “People that didn’t want to be seen.”

The neighborhood partnered with the city’s parks department to add interim improvements, including more than a mile of walking trails. “There’s no place to hide anymore,” Guttchen said.

Making the neighborhood more walkable is a big part of the neighborhood association’s job.

Guttchen was among many Olympians who pressed for and helped pass the Parks and Pathways Measure in 2004, a 3 percent private utility tax increase to generate money to buy parks and build sidewalks.

One of the most visible results of that was a new sidewalk that was built on the San Francisco Avenue hill, from East Bay Drive to Quince Street, in 2008.

Several other sidewalks have been built in the neighborhood as well, all championed by the neighborhood association. The sidewalk installed on Miller Avenue in 2006, from Fir Street to Friendly Grove Road, was ranked 29th in priority out of 33 projects, according to Guttchen. But the neighborhood advocacy pushed the priority up.

That close-knit neighborhood feel is what attracted Jones, who moved there with her husband, Paul, a year and a half ago from Vancouver, Wash.

“We just felt like we wanted to get into a neighborhood where people hung out in their yards and knew their neighbors,” she said.

Guttchen said getting people in the neighborhood energized over a single issue is not a problem, but getting them to come to meetings and do organizational tasks, such as bookkeeping, is more difficult.

He depends on a dedicated core of volunteers.

One of them is Melinda Spencer, who maintains the Web site and has a hand in all kinds of projects. She participates in the Walk and Roll to School program, which provides incentives for children who bike to Roosevelt on Wednesdays. The neighborhood helped Roosevelt install the Time Garden, a collection of plants surrounding a giant sundial, in front of the school. It makes neighborhood people visible, and she said she regularly greets the young people.

“I think if we can’t find a way to build an environment where we actually cross paths with groups that I guess you could actually consider at risk or somewhat unapproachable then they just crawl into that identity and become untouchable,” she said.

Along with the traffic improvements, the intersection of Bethel Street and San Francisco Avenue, next to the school, is having a renaissance. There’s the Time Garden in one corner. On another corner, the San Francisco Bakery has greened up the block, and the neighborhood has installed new kiosks for posting flyers. On the opposite corner, the neighborhood regularly fights graffiti on an old gas station, and Spencer hopes for new development there someday.

The neighborhood is changing, one block, one intersection at a time. The drop-off point at Roosevelt will be the latest proof.

“This was an amazing lesson in how powerful it can be to support something from the bottom up,” Spencer said.


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