While public schools are closing (or on the verge of closing) across the city, a plan by Commissioner Erik Sten's office could see one built, by private funds, in the Pearl District.
It's part of Sten's "Schools, Family, Housing" initiative, which aims to maintain and increase school enrollments in the city—and decrease the number of families who move to the suburbs—by, in part, building affordable housing near schools. There are currently a number of projects in the works, but none so attention grabbing as the school proposed for the Pearl.
With the north end of the district filling up with housing and commercial projects, Sten's office wants to find a spot for a school before all of the lots are gone. But because Portland Public Schools doesn't exactly have the funds to build a new school, the commissioner is looking to strike a deal: Private developers (namely, Hoyt Street Properties, which owns most of the developable lots) would pitch in to build the school and, in exchange, the city would grant them "Floor Area Ratio" bonuses, which would, in lay terms, allow them to put more units into their developments, thus bringing them more money. Private fundraising would round out the cost of building the school, but Portland Public Schools would pay for the yearly operating costs.
The idea is to attract and keep more families in the Pearl; currently, it's a haven for young, childless professionals, who tend to flee as soon as they procreate because there are few options for family housing and services. So, along with the school, the city has two Pearl blocks set aside for affordable family housing units, which, according to loose projections from Sten's office, would bring in 200 to 300 K-6 aged kids.
But, assuming Sten can get Hoyt Street and others to pony up, and assuming the neighborhood groups sign off on the increased density, and assuming that enough Pearl residents decide not to send their children to private schools instead, the project still has one major obstacle: the public perception that the city is bending over to help the yuppies finance their own school, while lower-income areas have had their schools shuttered.
"If people read in the newspaper that there's a plan for a new school in the River District, and they just went through a school closure, it's perfectly understandable they'll be frustrated," says Rich Rodgers, Sten's coordinator for the initiative. "But it's important to remember that we're having about a half-dozen similar conversations around the city, so it's not just the Pearl."