Inlet View Elementary is the second oldest school in the Anchorage School District, constructed in 1957 and opened to the public in 1959. When the city isn't reeling from the damage inflicted from an out-of-control pandemic, the school plays host to hundreds of students that live in the surrounding Downtown and South Addition neighborhoods. And, as is often the case in Alaska, the years haven't been kind.
The school does not currently meet ASD standards in a slew of categories. The fire-suppression systems throughout the school are antiquated – to the point of there not really being any. Access is limited to a single driveway, causing frequent traffic backups, and leads to a small parking lot that only houses 26 spaces. There have been over 500 work order requests in just the last three years. One room doubles as gymnasium, cafeteria, and miscellany. “If we have lunch time we cannot do a PE class,” Inlet View Principal Patricia Ahrens told KTUU's Lauren Maxwell back in September. “And if we have PE we cannot do an assembly.... We only have one space to do multiple things.”
“Disrepair” would be a forgiving description.
In 2015, the ASD enlisted local architectural firm Nvision to conduct a Project Analysis Report (PAR) on Inlet View, to determine whether the accumulated wear and tear of its six-decade run of operations necessitated a building life extension (remedial maintenance work), a comprehensive renewal, or a complete rebuild. ASD followed up with a second study two years later, through consultant Western Demographics, Inc., a Colorado-based school-planning and design firm. They concluded with the strong recommendation to start anew on a replacement site that could accommodate up to 300 students (current enrollment sits at 215 students – well beyond the official capacity of 170), complete with a new fire suppression system that was not available in the 1950s.
Anchorage approved Bond Measure 2 in April 2020's municipal elections by a 17-point margin, appropriating $82.8 million in capital improvement projects throughout ASD – a necessary action after a 7.1 earthquake wreaked havoc on a dozen aging elementary and high schools in the municipality. Included in the bond package was $3.34 million slated for a new Inlet View redesign on the existing site. That existing site is located on the north end of the school property.
With the startup funds now available to begin designing the school, ASD established a Building Design Committee (BDC) in October of 2020, composed of ten members: three school parents and seven school staff. The BDC reported that same month that the new construction would be roughly 45,000 square feet and come with a price tag of just under $22 million.
That's when some residents around the school and the surrounding neighborhoods noticed the process grow startlingly opaque. Only one of the members of the BDC lived immediately adjacent to the school property and would not be immediately affected by the construction, design, and location. The group also operated outside the municipality's Open Meetings Act, according to a recent finding by Darrel Hess, Anchorage's ombudsmen.
The BDC announced in September that they had decided on a south side location for the rebuild, reversing the bond proposal language that stipulated Inlet View be rebuilt on the “existing site” on the northern end of the property. It would also feature four new one-way driveways, including a bus loop, staff parking, and maintenance access, and 70 parking spaces – 20 for school staff and 50 for visitors – as well as 22 additional spaces for student drop-off and pick-up.
Residents around Inlet View Elementary have organized as the Friends of Inlet View Elementary School (FIVES) and are voicing their concerns before any final plan is set and finalized to appear on April's ballot, which will likely feature a new bond package to pay for the replacement school's construction. 107 members of FIVES – mostly residents of South Addition – signed a letter, sent on November 16 and addressed to ASD Superintendent Deena Bishop and Anchorage School Board members, outlining lingering questions and objections over the proposed site, while emphasizing that they support the overall effort to rebuild the school.
“Anchorage School District created the Inlet View Elementary School design and location problems through its closed process that violated the state Open Meetings Act and the school board failed to fix those problems,” Deborah Hansen, FIVES spokesperson and a 40-year resident of Anchorage who lives next to Inlet View Elementary, wrote along with the email sent to Bishop and company. “A new school built on the south side of the property likely will be significantly more expensive due to the location’s water and seismic concerns, and will degrade the outdoor experience of both students and neighbors with shadowing on the grounds much of the year. Friends of Inlet View Elementary School does not support the 2022 Anchorage School Bond as it currently is written.”
FIVES areas of concern span three different topics. First, the group wants ASD to provide cost estimates relating to “water and other location issues.” They claim that homes on M Street, directly south of the school, are at risk of water infiltration; many already have sump pumps because of high levels of preexisting groundwater levels. Additional cost estimates are being requested to factor in the removal of subsurface peat and addition of replacement fill to bolster the new school's foundation, and address any lingering seismic concerns, which they allege are more of an issue if the rebuild is located on the south end of the property.
Second, FIVES would like the Municipality's Traffic Department to conduct a traffic study to make sure Inlet Place isn't inundated with traffic caused by the new school location. The one-way street, directly east of the school, serves as the main neighborhood access and entrance point for approximately 20 blocks of homes between 12th and 15th. Traffic already tends to back up there, the group says.
Finally, the group wants to see an assessment on health impacts on students and residents as they relate to “property shadows” – the literal shadows created by the proposed two-story school structure. Property shadowing is emerging as a consideration on new building construction, especially in big cities like New York City, where myriad skyscrapers clogging the horizon have sparked battles attempting to preserve sunlight. In Anchorage, skyscrapers aren't an issue, but protecting what little sunlight children can enjoy during the dark winters months comes at a premium.
“The proposed Inlet View Elementary School replacement project has been conducted in secrecy over the past 18,” Hansen opined in a letter published by the Anchorage Daily News. “Apparently, moving the school from the north side to the unsuitable south side costs $10 million more that could be well used to fix roofs, security systems rather than wasting money on a location that the neighbors do not want.”
Lois Epstein, a member of FIVES and an Alaska-licensed engineer who heads LNE Engineering and Policy, says that most of the concerns would be alleviated by locating the facility on the north side. Ground and surface water issues, ground preparation and fill, and shadowing issues are mainly isolated to the south end, she said.
Both FIVES and the South Addition Community Council have repeatedly stressed their desire for the school to be rebuilt, but both want the BDC to objectively evaluate all proposed sites and determine which location would minimize any negative consequences. South Addition passed a resolution detailing this preferred public process in late October of this year, and last month followed up by selecting two members of the community council to participate in BDC meetings regarding the project's design and location.
“The two new members of the Building Design Committee, Mitch Cullom and Sharon Meacham, would like the choices re-examined. Mitch is very familiar with the variousplans and Sharon Meacham as an ASD principal has managed two remodels,” Hansen told The Press this week. “ASD could change their current path since the first designs were all on the north side.... One could look at the choice as an inconvenience for the current parents for a year versus building a 60 year school in a less desirable location.”
The path forward will be determined after one final BDC meeting slated for December 9, and Anchorage residents are available to participate via Zoom or by email. Epstein says reversing course is still an option. “We want to wind the clock back until April,” she explained, noting that FIVES had received assurances from ASD that “they can move forward with a north side building, but it would require some catch-up design work that would cost some additional money and would have to move quickly.”