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That's what she said

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What’s Up at Washington School Part I: The Background Info


At the Washington School site, the old maple trees have seen quite a few seasons since being the center of city and neighborhood attention several years ago. The children’s art has been carefully taken down and will find a new home, if not at University Hill Elementary School, at another elementary school within the city. The chain link fence still surrounds the school as does the mystery of when the former elementary school will see its next life.

“What’s going on at Washington School?” is a question we both get a lot. Until recently, the answer was “Not much.”

Things are changing and we’ll tell you how and when.

First, a little background information.

An Unlikely Pair of Authors

We began our acquaintance as adversaries on opposite sides of a contentious issue. We spent several months working across the table from each other, looking straight down the sights of that issue. When you discuss and explore a matter over a long period of time, you learn to listen, you learn to talk to each other, you gain understanding. You don’t agree on everything, but you begin to accept that. You look for those things that you can agree on and explore those.

Polarization of a community can bring civility to its knees. The issue of Washington School at its nadir had split Boulder with no apparent middle ground. You were either for the project or not. We hope that we’ve begun to recover from that. The matter of Washington School, with any luck, taught us all something. No one involved walked away without at least a little personal growth.

We’re not best friends, but we have earned each other’s respect. Washington School will become Washington Village. We need to accept that. Washington Village will not meet the dense vision of some. We need to accept that, too.


History, they say, is written by the winners. It’s hard to say in this case, who won and who lost. We’ll proceed with facts and leave determination of winners and losers to those philosophers among you.

Washington School dates back to 1903, when it first opened. Its Broadway and Elder location put it, back then, on the outskirts of town where it served the children of farmers and workers on truck farms around the county. It is the twin of Lincoln Elementary on West Arapahoe.

During the 1970’s, enrollment declined and the school was closed for a few years in the 1980’s, but leased by the city for various programs during that time. In 1992 it opened again as Escuela Washington Bilingue an English/Spanish immersion magnet school.

In 2002 the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) closed Washington and Mapleton Elementary Schools. Washington School, shortly thereafter, was valued at $3.2 million by a city hired appraiser.

In 2003, after a one year lease with an option to buy with the city, Washington Elementary closed for good.

In 2004, without public input, the city decided internally not to purchase any part of the site.

In 2005, at the height of the housing bubble, the city solicited proposals from private developers and had them competitively evaluated by a Citizen Review Panel (CRP) and the Planning Board. Also in 2005, BVSD set a base price of $3.9 million, with price escalations, “entitlement premiums” and a condition to close on the property 90 days after selection of a developer.

In 2006 the CRP recommended four developers to be issued Requests for Proposals. The Washington Neighborhood wanted a significant portion of the site to remain public as a park. After BVSD refused any flexibility in its price or purchase conditions, three of the developers dropped out. Wonderland Hill Development Company (WHDC) was selected by default even though its proposal, which included full private development of the site, was ranked lowest of the four selected by the CRP.  Also in 2006, BVSD relented on its inflexibility and granted a one year extension to the condition to close and WHDC entered into a contract to purchase the site.

In 2007 a protracted Site Review process ensued. WHDC was granted another extension on the closing date. The project was approved by the Planning Board, but called-up by the City Council and a special hearing was set. The project was approved at council call-up. A petition for referendum was launched immediately after council approval, and the petition drive paralleled a City Council election campaign for which Washington School became an issue. Enough signatures were collected to bring the matter up before a newly elected council, many of whom still serve today. The evolving and related Compatible Development conversation also became a campaign issue.

The year 2008 saw the creation of a Recommendation Group (RG) an eight member group that met for several months on which Jim Leach and Mary Young both served. Guided by a skilled facilitator, the RG developed a set of guiding principles for the property’s development including a provision for some public open space on the site. In April, BVSD and WHDC closed on the property for $4.1 million. In September, the economy crashed.

Another Site Review and another council call-up yielded the project’s final approval in early 2009. Washington Elementary School was officially given Historical Landmark status in 2010.

It is now 2011, loans have been hard to come by, the project has languished for nearly two years.

Stay tuned for Part II.

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