Cottage Grove Sentinel | ACE charter school sets sights on old Harrison building

Nathan Law

Just three years after closing its doors to students for what seemed the final time, the old Harrison Elementary School at 1000 South 10th Street may be opening up to a new chapter. On Aug. 18, the Cottage Grove Planning Commission will consider granting Academy for Character Education (ACE) charter […]

Just three years after closing its doors to students for what seemed the final time, the old Harrison Elementary School at 1000 South 10th Street may be opening up to a new chapter.

On Aug. 18, the Cottage Grove Planning Commission will consider granting Academy for Character Education (ACE) charter school a conditional use permit for the property. The green light from the commission would begin a process that could see students in the halls by the start of the school year in fall of 2022.

The tuition-free public charter school is sponsored by the South Lane School District (SLSD) and takes a unique approach to education with a hybrid of in-person and at-home learning. 

“We’re really a niche school with a lot of parent input and a lot of parents teaching,” said Principal Starr Sahnow.

The charter school is now going into its 15th year of service and has grown from an initial student population of around 30 to its current population of 150.

Over the years, the school has adapted to this growth by seeking out new spaces to hold classes and store materials. Including an off-site storage building in Oakridge, the school is currently spread out among five separate buildings in the area.

“For us, it’s just a matter of finding a space where we can house our school in one location,” said Sahnow. “We are a very textbook-heavy school, so a lot of our off-site storage is textbooks in the curricula that we use.”

A New Place for ACE

After an exhaustive search of several other buildings within the South Lane district, in which the charter school must reside, ACE finally settled on the old Harrison building.

Besides being more than big enough to house its student population, the property checks many of the boxes on the school’s list of needs.

“We would like a library. That’s always been something that has been on our wish list. And we currently have no playground,” Sahnow said. “We’re just looking to condense our multiple buildings into one and of course provide the extras for our students like a computer room, an arts and crafts room, a music room – things that we just don’t have the space for right now.”

Plans submitted to the Cottage Grove Planning Commission show that ACE will occupy the southern half of the old Harrison school building, which includes the gym, several classrooms and the library.

However, some renovations are needed. The conditional use permit will cover two phases of various improvements including safety features.

“Because of limited funding, we’re not able to get in and do the whole building at once,” said Sahnow. “So that’s not ideal, but we’re going to make it work.”

Under the two-phase plan, improvements will be made to address fire safety issues by adding a fire alarm, meeting fire exiting requirements and installing a building-wide fire sprinkler system. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility standards will also be brought into compliance in bathrooms and damaged doors and windows will need to be fixed.

Impact on the neighboring community is expected to be light as students will only be on-site two or three days out of the week.

“That’s a big thing that community needs to know — is that our school is a smaller school,” said Sahnow. “We also don’t have buses, which is a huge thing. I think the neighborhood really needs to understand we are working on making the drop off smooth in the morning — as well as pick up in the afternoon — and not planning on-street parking.”

To avoid on-street parking, the school has proposed a 44-space parking lot on the south side of the building.

Sahnow stressed, too, that ACE intends on partnering with the community should it purchase the property.

“We’ve already talked to South Valley Athletics and want to partner with them for the use of the field,” she said. “So, I really am hoping that we can share it with the community.”

Harrison’s History

While finding a building that will consolidate students and materials all while serving ACE’s needs is good news for the school, Harrison’s own history with the community adds a wrinkle to the story. The question of what to do with the old elementary school property has been a recurring point of somewhat turbulent public discussion over the past several years.

In 2016, SLSD proposed and passed bond measure 20-240, which asked the community for nearly $36 million to realize plans to replace, renovate and upgrade school facilities. The general obligation bond included the relocation of Harrison Elementary School to its current site on Taylor Avenue, renovation of the aquatic center, several deferred maintenance projects and district-wide network and technology upgrades.

The measure also proposed salvaging and reusing the old Harrison property rather than addressing its many renovation needs, which would have proven to be prohibitively expensive.

The district made the case for this approach in a 2016 list of concerns about the old building’s maintenance and renovation needs.

For instance, the document stated that “the combination of aged clay bricks and failing mortar are of great concern in the event of any seismic event.”

Based on a collapse potential risk index created by the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, SLSD reported that the building was in the “high potential category.”

Other concerns listed included high-cost estimates to deal with roofing conditions, ADA compliance, water piping corrosion and rust, HVAC maintenance accessibility and heat insulation issues.

In addition, the challenge of abating the asbestos which was in proximity to a number of these issues made the costs “astronomical.”

The list of concerns did not, however, specifically list asbestos as a health concern. The growing population of the school, rather, necessitated many of these costly upgrades as approximately 450 students attended the school before the relocation.

To avoid the high cost of renovation and asbestos abatement, the 2016 bond proposed using $513,455 to salvage Harrison’s gym and field space for community recreational use.

The bond passed that year with 56 percent of voters casting in favor.

However, in the fall of 2018, the SLSD board began looking at the costs associated with the 6.84-acre property more deeply. As bond projects were implemented and price estimates shifted, the district gradually realized it needed to adjust its plans regarding the fate of the property. Three options were developed.

The first option included a full renovation package: a parking area, athletic field, asbestos abatement, some demolition and the rebuilding of the gym.

Though initial costs were estimated by the school district to be around $900 thousand for the whole endeavor, the discovery of additional structural issues shot the cost of maintaining the gym alone up to around $1 million. Including the other items on the price list, final estimates on the first option came to more than $2 million — more than double what was initially expected.

A second option, which excluded salvaging the gym, dropped those costs to between $800 and $900 thousand — still not an entirely attractive option for a district trying to manage a gradually draining bond fund.

Lastly, option three was to sell the property off with conditions.

After much deliberation, in May 2019, the school board voted unanimously for the third option — to sell the property under the assumption it would be rezoned from R1 to R2 and that abatement of the asbestos could be stipulated upon sale.

The land was successfully rezoned in July that year in hopes it would allow the property to be used to develop a wider variety of housing types including duplexes and multifamily dwellings to help address Cottage Grove’s housing needs.

This decision was met with some resistance from local residents at the time who felt they had been cheated out of a bond promise for a community recreation area.

“On their list of priorities, I don’t know that they checked in with the community,” said neighborhood resident Molly Patterson to The Sentinel at the time.

The district then posted a request for proposal (RFP) in September 2019 which stated that the property would be sold “at a fixed price of $400,000 under the condition that the developer completes the abatement, and/or removal of asbestos and lead paint in the building or demolition and removal of the building.”

Though real estate appraiser Duncan & Brown had put the property value at around $745,000, the SLSD board voted to sell the property for the substantial discount due to the cost of dealing with the toxic materials.

“The $400,000 net value of the property is based upon an appraisal of the property less the cost of abatement and/or removal of asbestos and mitigation of the lead paint in the building,” stated the RFP.

The board subsequently selected three proposals for consideration by committee.

A proposal by Homes for Good, Lane County’s low-income housing agency, was passed over. The agency had proposed a target demographic of individuals and families making 50-80 percent of median household income, though the proposal did not allow for the degree of home ownership sought by the school district.

Instead, board members unanimously voted on Jan. 6, 2020, to begin negotiations with Blackstone Inc., a business owned by local developer Len Blackstone, who submitted the other two proposals.

Both proposals outlined plans to create Harrison Village, a unique “pocket neighborhood” development.

The concept consisted of a planned community of small clusters of dwelling units surrounding a courtyard, garden or other shared open space.

“The beauty of concept is that it focuses on building community, as opposed to only providing housing,” Blackstone said.

The Blackstone proposals estimated between 90-100 units could be built on the 6.84-acre property, consisting of a mixture of housing such as duplexes and single-family homes. It also allowed for home ownership as opposed to management, which the school district preferred.

“More housing is one of the goals,” said Assistant Superintendent Brian McCasline following the decision to go with Blackstone. “Another goal of the school district is to be able to house our staff here. In the school district’s interest, we have lost some staff in the past — and in the very near past — to positions in Eugene and Springfield where there’s housing available.”

The homes targeted potential homeowners who fell between 80-120 percent of median household income with an estimated price range between $195,000 to $295,000 per home and monthly rents in an expected range of $900 to $1,500.

Blackstone’s two proposals differed in that one involved removing the old Harrison building while the other did not.

The Blackstone proposal with the school building removed states, “The proposer offers South Lane School District’s full asking price of $400,000 and accepts all the terms and conditions of this RFP and any addenda.”

However, as months passedf following the sale, no construction work had been done and the old Harrison building remained unchanged, prompting questions as to the fate of the building and property.

“Plans sometimes get interrupted,” explained Blackstone. “In my case, it was COVID.”

As COVID-19 dominated the landscape of 2020 and impacted his ability to secure a commercial real estate loan, Blackstone’s aspirations for Harrison Village began to evaporate.

The land has since been partitioned into two lots, divided in half just 75 feet south of the southern edge of the school building. The 645-foot-long southern lot was later sold to Eugene-based Hi-Valley Development Corporation.

The company has recently started development on Harrison Village Apartments, a complex of 80 apartments units clustered in a community of 10 apartment buildings, all two-story. The plan calls for a mix of one- and two-bedroom units.

Earlier this year, however, when a posting of the land for sale indicated it was on the market for much more than it was bought, Blackstone became the target of speculation that a bait and switch had taken place.

A main point of confusion rested in whether or not the building’s asbestos abatement and/or removal were stipulations in the sales contract. According to those close to the subject, the indication was that they were not.

Blackstone himself has stated as much.

In response to the public speculation, he released a public letter in March this year which stated that, “There was no requirement or preference communicated to interested purchasers that the old school building be renovated or removed. … In the private selection process, committee members may have expressed a preference; but the only information I received at the end was (1) I had been selected, and (2) I could choose to remove or renovate the building.”

Furthermore, the district did not specifically select either of the two proposals, Blackstone explained to The Sentinel, but rather simply chose him as the developer.

During the process, Blackstone recalled asking about any work that was required to be done on the building.

“I asked multiple times, ‘Was there any requirement about what you want done with it, any performance, any issues?’ And the answer was ‘no,’” he said. “And so, as far as I knew, there was no expectation.”

This was in part why two proposals were submitted, he explained.

“If it was clear to me that they wanted only the abatement option, why would I double my costs?” he asked.

In any case, Blackstone added, his intention was to abate the school and build his development, a plan which turned out to be ill-fated, upset by the pandemic.

After selling the property, which is currently in escrow, he said he will turn his attention to other projects currently in planning stages, which he hopes will benefit the community.

Should ACE end up buying the old Harrison school and field, this will close Blackstone’s chapter with the property.

“It’ll be great for the community,” said Blackstone of ACE’s potential ownership. “And for parents who want their kids to go there, they’ll have a much better place to go.”

Building Safety

Still, ACE will face its own challenges to claiming a new home. One will be the public perception of the old Harrison building itself.

To address concerns and as part of obtaining the conditional use permit, ACE hosted a neighborhood meeting last week speaking to families, though Sahnow noted she hoped for a higher turnout of area residents considering the school’s intention to be a community partner.

“There was no one from the neighborhood who came with questions,” Sahnow said, despite sending out about 80 notices.

The question of the school’s safety has been a focus over the nine months ACE has been looking into purchasing the building, she said, and the site has received multiple walk-throughs from officials and contractors in that time.

In addition to fire safety and other improvements, ACE has taken into consideration the presence of asbestos and lead paint in the old building.

Sahnow pointed out that the bloated occupancy of the previous student population was what in part created the need for renovations and upgrades which would have disturbed any hazardous materials.

ACE has enlisted architect Trace Ward, one of the principals from Eugene-based company GLAS Architects, to help with the school’s transition into the building. Ward was present at last week’s neighborhood meeting to answer questions.

Ward’s current assessment is that the building can safely house the school’s 150-student population after renovations are complete.

“Our intent with the architect is obviously to make the building safe for kids,” said Sahnow. “We have no desire to put kids in a building that’s not safe.”

Among the concerns raised in the district’s list back in 2016 was the presence of asbestos in the roofing, near steam piping, on temperature pneumatic controls, in window glazing and in floor tiles.

Bans on asbestos began in the 1970s and by 1989 the Environmental Protection Agency had largely banned asbestos in new materials and called for all school buildings to be inspected and repaired if necessary. The old Harrison building was established in 1948 and saw additions in 1951, 1956, 1967, 1969, 1974, and 1986.

“When you’re dealing with asbestos, the concern that you have is that you’re trying to keep people from breathing in asbestos dust,” explained Ward. “What happens mostly with floor tiles is that they are cleaned and waxed before the school year starts and they work just fine as floor tiles. There isn’t a real issue normally of any asbestos coming loose from the normal wear and tear of actually just walking on the tile.”

The same applies to insulation around piping in the school’s attic space and other areas, the main concern being that material would become airborne, he said. “And that pretty much only happens when people are disturbing it.”

If work were to be done, an abatement contractor would be hired to properly deal with the asbestos, he added.

“But in this case, the plan really is to move away from the old boiler and hot water or steam system and go to a different heating system altogether,” said Ward. This approach will help avoid unsettling hazardous materials in the school’s attic.

As for lead paint in older buildings, the issue is often handled in a process of encapsulation in which the material is painted over.

“Normally, for a building of this age, we would assume that there is lead paint,” said Ward, but he noted that the presence of the hazardous materials is not itself an issue.

“I think that it’s good to know that there are materials out there that are potentially harmful, but the idea that they exist isn’t necessarily a huge concern,” he said.

Replacing broken doors, for instance, will require that the materials first be assessed and then disposed of appropriately. Much of the process will involve case-by-case assessments and the manner in which they are dealt with will become clearer as the project moves forward, Ward said.

“If it were me and my kids, I would be talking about wanting to be careful about whether or not the stuff is airborne,” he said. “But if I were to have my kids going to this school, I wouldn’t hesitate. … The idea that the school has asbestos tile flooring doesn’t cause me concern.”

As ACE is in the process of determining whether or not it can buy the building, a full accounting of the building’s still needs to be done.

“And once that decision becomes clearer, then we’ll end up looking more heavily into pulling together all the drawings and details for completing all the renovations in order to turn it back into a school,” said Ward. “The process for dealing with potential hazards is just starting. … And as renovations happen, care will be taken to deal with the surfaces appropriately.”

The Planning Commission will meet at 7 p.m. on Aug. 18 in the City Council Chambers to discuss the conditional use permit. Online attendance is available through the city’s website or by accessing www.gotomeet.me/RichardMeyers/august-18-2021-planning-commission-meeting.

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