Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Applying CEQA urban decay concept to DC charter school approval process

One of my laments is how most DCPS high schools have abysmal enrollments, which encourages a cycle of failure because the schools aren't able to offer a wide range of classes.

Most of the schools have about half the enrollment or less of what they were built to accommodate.

This has been exacerbated lately by the rebuilding of a couple of schools, when they should have been demolished and closed, in order to strengthen the enrollment of the remaining schools.

Instead all the schools are getting remodeled, at a cost of $100 to $150 million each.

One place that is happening is Ward 4, where I live.  I live a couple blocks from Coolidge High School and I would like for it to be a great school.

But because it competes for students with Roosevelt High School, about 2 miles away, neither school is able to attain large enough enrollments which would enable the necessary conditions required to offer a well rounded curriculum.

I was talking about this over the weekend with a Takoma resident-advocate, who has been involved in child and family issues in the city since the 1960s, and we were "arguing" about my opposition to building a middle school on the grounds of the Takoma Recreation Center.  She jokingly scoffed at one of my suggestions--building a school on the top of the Walmart on Georgia Avenue--and I countered with another suggestion, building a middle school on the parking lot of Paul Charter Junior High.

She told me that they are planning to build a high school there.

I was shocked.

The reason that the city's public schools are losing so much enrollment is that there is no real check on the opening of new charter schools in terms of the impact on enrollments of existing schools.

Building a new high school between two other high schools which are under-enrolled by more than 1,000 students collectively will only aggravate the problem--which was in part touched off by the former Paul Junior High School, which was a "feeder" to Coolidge, becoming one of the city's first charter schools back in the early 1990s.

There is a public interest in using scarce resources well, and the continued growth in charter schools while overall student enrollment is growing, but very slowly, and not at a pace commensurate with the number of schools that have opened and are approved for opening.

Basically the city's student population hasn't grown much since the 1990s, when it was determined tha the city schools were reporting higher enrollments than were likely to be true.

Demographic analysis determined that the student population was around 80,000, and it still is around that number--including charter and traditional schools ("D.C. school enrollment increases, with charters growing faster than DCPS," Post).  Most of the recent gains have come from the extension of Pre-K programming to children aged 3 yeaars.

That means that the rampant creation of new charter schools is leading to the destruction of existing public resources in terms of the extant schools.

2.  The Urban Decay concept in the California Environmental Quality Assessment process. When dealing with the Walmart issue a few years ago (ANC4B Large Tract Review Report on Walmart, 5/2011) I advocated for stronger mitigation requirements on the company and the developer--something that the elected officials were completely uninterested in--even though it is arguable that this is allowed for within the City's Large Tract Review regulations, even though the Office of Planning has decided that economic impact isn't a "neighborhood impact" for which there should be study or mitigation.

Urban Decay is a concept in CEQA that calls for the evaluation of the impact of new development, usually retail, on existing development.

If an argument can be made that the new development will be deleterious to existing places, then there has to be mitigation and changes in the project in significant ways.  I presume this could include not approving the project as well.

From the chapter on Environmental Setting, Impacts, and Mitigation Measures from the City of Eureka Marina Center Environmental Impact Report:
Urban decay is physical deterioration that is so prevalent and substantial it impairs the proper use of affected real estate, or the health, safety, and welfare of the surrounding community (CBRE, 2006). Physical deterioration can include abnormally high business vacancies, abandoned buildings and industrial sites, boarded doors and windows, long term unauthorized use of properties and parking lots, extensive gang or offensive graffiti painted on buildings, dumping of waste or overturned dumpsters on property, dead trees or shrubbery, uncontrolled weed growth, and homeless encampments.

Recent findings by the State of California’s Appellate Court (Bakersfield Citizens for Local Control v. City of Bakersfield (2004) 124 Cal.App.4th 1884) have interpreted the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) as requiring disclosure of the possibility for “urban decay” when considering projects that include a large-format retailer, such as the proposed Home Depot store. 
It is important to recognize that, like most CEQA requirements, this standard is focused on impacts to the physical environment and as such it requires the consideration of conditions of disinvestment that could result in the decay of real property as a result of the defined project. These conditions are distinct from conditions of blight which are defined by the California Health and Safety Code (sections 33030-33039) which set the standards for the adoption of redevelopment project areas. The urban decay disclosure requirement is relatively new, and as a result the standards and practices related to compliance are still somewhat unsettled and evolving.
3.  DC's environmental assessment laws.  Arguably, an extremely good lawyer could make a similar argument vis-a-vis DC's environmental assessment requirements, which are stronger in law and regulations than in practice.

The legal case in Ivy City, about the use of the vacant Crummell School as a bus yard for Union Station, is in part based on such an argument, and so far it has been successful.

4.  I would argue that  "School Decay" provisions need to be added to the process for approving  new charter schools.  Note that it is only very recently that the Washington Post ("New D.C. charter school highlights debate over planning")--the newspaper has been a strong proponent of charter schools for some time--has acknowledged this problem. From the article:
Henderson called Harmony’s move an inefficient use of tax­payer dollars and a sign of a choice that the city is going to have to make: Does the District want to plan for the coexistence of charter schools alongside a system of traditional neighborhood schools? Or does the city want to continue with a laissez-faire approach that Henderson said could give rise to a “cannibalistic environment” in which “somebody gets eaten” 
“Either we want neighborhood schools or we want cannibalism, but you can’t have both,” Henderson said, adding her voice to a growing chorus of people who have called for joint planning between traditional and charter schools and perhaps a limit on the number of independent charter schools in the District. 
“A citywide conversation about how many schools do we need, and how do we get to the right number of schools, as opposed to continuing to allow as many schools to proliferate as possible, is probably a necessary conversation to have at some point,” Henderson said.
Page about children building play cities from a reading instruction bookWhile the quotes are ridiculous, because such a conversation/planning process shouldn't be an option, but is in fact absolutely necessary--and it should have happened in the 1990s! at the outset of the creation of charter schools--it's a step forward that the problem is finally making it into print.

 Also see:

-- "One way in which community planning is completely backwards."
-- "Missing the most important point about closing Clifton School in Fairfax County"
-- "Rethinking community planning around maintaining neighborhood civic assets and anchors"
-- "WTF continued: DC Public Schools -- schools as fundamental building blocks of vibrant neighborhoods"

It's another illlustration of weak planning processes in the city, which includes not having a public and transparent capital improvements planning and budgeting process.

Such a process should cover capital improvements programs for all civic assets, including charter schools, investments in existing public schools, school deaccession, etc.  .

Recommendation:  In any case, when there isn't demand for new schools, other than by taking away enrollment from existing schools, except in extraordinary circumstances, the application to create a new charter school should not be approved.

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At 3:14 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

It looks like ellington school for arts may be moving into to Shaw Junior high/Garnett Patterson space.

At 3:37 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I guess I am out of the loop. Haven't read the Current for more than one month, and the Current is great for this kind of coverage.

My thought was that Ellington should be moved to either Roosevelt or Coolidge (the proposal now is for Roosevelt to have an international focus) because either is located within a few blocks of a Metro station.

I would argue that would be a better choice in either instance. Ease of transit access for a school with a citywide enrollment basis should be a top priority. Ellington at Coolidge could also leverage arts initiatives in Takoma and even Silver Spring, and future embassies at Walter Reed.

And converting Ellington back to Western High, obviously allows an easing of overcrowding at Wilson, without generating the opposition of the current proposals for changing school boundaries.

At 3:38 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... granted, Shaw JHS is close to a Metro station, on the same line as Roosevelt.

At 3:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

in 5-10 years the city is going to having to rebuild and reopen public schools again once the troublesome ghetto contingent leaves the city for suburbia as it has been doing, ardently, for th epast 20 - odd years- charter schools are a response to this part of society- a barely literate and dysfunctional group at best- and public schools will usrely make a comeback when the necessity for charter schools diminishes, which is already happening. I would , instead of closing public schools, bank them as some other kind of asset, for future usage. Dc is also undergoing or has undergone a hospital depletage in the past 30 years and there will come apoint where we will have to have new hospitals. God help us if we get attacked again because I see many people suffering and dying trying to get out fairfax Inova and other hospitals when they used to be right here i nthe city. As our population recovers these problems will come to the forefront and have to be dealt with in a rational manner.

At 4:27 PM, Blogger dan reed! said...

Montgomery County Public Schools has a similar issue, though its enrollment is growing. There are a number of increasingly crowded schools, and MCPS officials (and many local electeds) campaigned this year for additional state school construction funding to alleviate the crowding. They didn't get it.

But nobody's mentioned that many of the overcrowded schools are also among the highest-ranked, like Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. Meanwhile, lower-ranked schools like Springbrook have hundreds of empty seats. Why are we building new schools and additions when we have excess capacity? Shouldn't we take advantage of that first?

Given, unlike DC the schools are farther apart, so it's not like you can just move kids from an overcrowded one to an underused one 10 miles away. But if MCPS were willing to do a boundary study like DC has (and they haven't done one in at least a decade), there might be ways to shift students around to use up some of the space we already have. It would be more controversial, but ultimately it could save some money.

At 4:39 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Dan, I don't know how it works in MoCo, but in DC, there is a fair amount of disconnection between the "Office of Planning" (my joke is that it is really the "Office of Land Use") and planning for the other DC govt. agencies, including schools.

In short, planning for neighborhoods and planning for the schools is not coordinated.

Is it the same way in MoCo? Does MNCPPC MoCo planning do all the planning for the schools, or is that area separate? My sense, based on Balt. County, was that the schools (and there also with the Dept. of Parks and Rec., which funded some of the recreation facilities co-used on school campuses) planned separately from the Office of Planning.

But it is true that the distances between schools are pretty great in MoCo.

For whatever reason though, I find very interesting that MoCo has an elementary school just a couple blocks from DC on Grubb Road (currently being reconstructed), while Lafayette Elem. on Broad Branch Parkway is just a few blocks from MoCo.

Anyyway, in high school, we lived almost abutting the Bloomfield Hills School District, and while my school district was building new schools, Eastover Elem., about 0.5 mile in the township, from the Troy border, was closing.

At 4:41 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

People don't have children to the same degree as they did before WW2. Plus DC's school footprint, historically, is larger than what would have been needed, because of the parallel segregated school system, which resulted in double coverage in some areas, and schools with mismatched enrollments.

Anyway, while the general point is true that enrollments will rise over time, a bit, I don't think we're looking at the kinds of peak enrollments, what was it, around 125000 students?, that occurred historically.

At 7:44 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Just a quick note on hospitals -- I disagree with that there are not enough in DC.

We are over supplied with hosptials. Building them for a catastrophe level event is insane. Hospitals are what what make health care expensive.

And, so, like fire stations, we need less of them.

The post did a series on unregulated day care in Virginia. Came down hard on it. But I'd say day care and how expensive it is is a real concern for DC parents. Driving that cost down helps. The Pre-K is probably a big part of that solution.

If we wanted to optimize the DC school system I'd say expand the primary school network and kill off the high schools. Maybe keep 2 or 3. The vast majority of DC students are basically just getting a middle school education. Highly unclear if keeping them in high school is doing anything in terms of educational outcomes.

At 10:17 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

not sure why the hospitals issue came up. It happens we agree, although I do believe in arguments for an east of the river hospital, like UMC.

But yes, hospitals are designed to put people in beds, and that costs money. (Some time I'll tell you my experience about this in 1989 at a meeting of the Academy of Health Services Marketing, where I was exhibiting.)

Recently I saw something that said only 5% of all "fire" calls nationally are for fires...

2. anyway, wrt schools, we still have to have high schools. But we should commit to having most schools with enrollments of 1200...

and we have to fix those issues that are "letting" students graduate being uneducated, rather than just give up.

At 8:30 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Ellington is just a temporary move while they rennovate the Georgetown building.

That is a shame.

If anything I'd tear down the Shaw School and replace it with a new, artsy, structure.

At least it is a much better class of people haning out at the 10th and U now. Although I am afraid of what happens when they run into the Cardozo kids.

In terms of high schools, spending more money and resources on a class of people who don't want an education is a waste. I see the value of having day care for them, as the alternative is worse.

At 1:51 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

well, we have to provide HS education. It's the law. The challenge is how to make it worthwhile. It's not something we can give up on.


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