Bertschi expansion riles neighborhood

Driving along 10th Avenue East on the north end of Capitol Hill you might be aware of the leafy residential district on either side of the busy arterial. You might also notice the former church building that has been home to the Bertschi School at 2227 10th Avenue East, a private elementary school that has occupied the site for a generation. But you might not be aware that a group of neighbors and the school are at considerable odds over the school's proposed expansion.

"It's a matter of maintaining the character of the neighborhood," said Larry Hettick, a longtime critic of the school's expansion plans.

Hettick lives on Broadway East near the Bertschi School. He and many of his neighbors are concerned about increased traffic, parking problems and noise, issues they say the school has not adequately addressed and which they believe will be exacerbated.

Hettick is part of a new organization, the Friends of North Broadway District (FNBD), which took form in January of this year, and it focuses primarily on issues pertaining to the Bertschi School expansion; he and others were previously involved in the North Capitol Hill Neighborhood Association before splitting off over differences in how to approach the Bertschi issue. Hettick said that roughly 100 people have signed up for the mailing list, while about 50 people make up the core group.

"Parking and traffic problems exist because the school has grown well beyond the space they have available to them," he said. "Adding more space will make these problems worse. There just isn't enough room. Plus, what is to stop them from expanding in the future?"

Hettick pointed out an agreement between the school and the city that dates back to 1981, one that said the school would cap enrollment at 120 students. The group challenged the school's application for its Master Use Permit with the city's Department of Planning and Development's hearing examiner in October. While several issues were raised, mostly relating to noise, the hearing examiner chose not to address the validity of the old agreement.

The next step - possibly drastic, certainly expensive - was to file a lawsuit in Superior Court. Hettick said 54 names are listed as appellants.

"We've learned a lot about things the school has allowed to happen that has allowed this neighborhood to be compromised," said Hettick, who's lived in the neighborhood for 13 years. He said a court date will likely be set for March or April of next year and that his group is cautiously optimistic that the ruling will be in their favor. If not, he said FNBD members will consider other options.

30 years

The Bertschi School was established by Swiss educator Brigette Bertschi in 1976 as a one-room pre-school, and banners along 10th Avenue East announce the school's 30th anniversary. The school currently teaches children from Kindergarten to fifth grade. Enrollment for the 2005-2006 academic year stands at 215.

The school's expansion plans consist of a $3.3 million project which will add roughly 5,000 square feet of space, allow for new art and music rooms, a much larger play area and a multi-purpose room. Parking will be increased from five to 18 stalls. Contrary to what may seem self evident, the expansion project won't increase the student population dramatically. The addition will allow the school to add roughly 16 younger children in a new pre-school program.

The FNBD appeal to the Superior Court, filed in October, more or less hits the pause button on the project, although demolition of the Reid Court apartments, a 17-unit complex just south of the school that was purchased in 2001, is likely to begin on or around Dec. 15.

The school feels it has addressed the neighborhood's concerns in good faith.

"We feel we have been transparent about our plans and made changes that benefit the neighborhood," said Tracy Nordhoff, the school's director of admissions. Those changes, she said, including modifying student drop-off patterns and increasing the number of traffic monitors to help speed up the process.

As for the noise issue, Bertschi pointed out that the ambient noise of the neighborhood, including noise from I-5, sirens and heavy traffic from 10th Avenue East, is often in excess of the city's limit regardless of the sounds of children playing outside. (Hettick and FNBD have undertaken their own noise monitoring efforts using city meters and dispute that notion.)

The delays have been problematic for the school. But if the court rules in the school's favor, construction could begin roughly six weeks later and take six or seven months.

"We're hopeful the work will be complete when the new school year begins in Seattle," said Bertschi.

As for the 1981 agreement, Bertschi said "it's important to note that we shared our strategic plans with the neighborhood all along. And the city knew each time. There is no secret or hidden agenda here."

"Schools and neighborhoods are organic," said Nordhoff. "The 1981 agreement was appropriate for that time, nearly 25 years ago."

She also said that previous discussions about an agreement between the school and neighborhood on capping enrollment, which the school agrees to in principle, won't be brought up again until the court decision is handed down.

Bertschi said that it is difficult that some of those fighting the expansion are taking the view that the school should simply pull up stakes and move. Hettick does not disagree with the notion that the school should relocate.

"Bertschi is certainly a good school, but it's just in the wrong place. They focus on the students, of course, but this comes at the expense of the residential character of this neighborhood. So it's hard for them to be good neighbors," said Hettick.

Relocation is not something the school is remotely considering.

"That idea is a conversation stopper. It simply isn't going to happen," said Bertschi. If the Superior Court ruling is not in the school's favor "we'll take it to the next level. We are totally committed to seeing this project through. We are part of this community and have been for 30 years. We want this school to continue to add to this neighborhood, and I truly believe that it does. But I can say with certainty that we are not going anywhere."

Doug Schwartz is the editor of the Capitol Hill Times. He can be reached at or 461-1308.

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