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Monday, April 3, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New lease on hold for U Heights Center

Seattle Times staff reporter

Old schools still teach.

That's the slogan at University Heights Center, a community center that opened in 1990, one year after the Seattle School District shuttered the building as an elementary school.

True to the motto, children continue to learn — as well as rehearse for choral and theater performances — inside former classrooms. A day-care facility for preschoolers occupies the old lunchroom. Community meetings take place in the old auditorium.

And outside, the University District Farmers Market sets up on the south parking lot each Saturday, drawing as many as 5,000 shoppers in search of everything from heirloom tomatoes to spelt breads.

Operating under a lease from the school district, the nonprofit University Heights Center for the Community Association rents the space and maintains the facility, including equipment that dates back to when the building at Northeast 50th Street and University Way Northeast first opened in 1903.

But the association's lease with the district expires in 2008, and the district is reluctant to enter into any new long-term leases until it finishes its priority work — deciding whether to close as many as a dozen schools.

U Heights officials say they can't wait that long.

"We don't want to push the school district too hard, understanding the difficult situation it finds itself in," said Richard Sorenson, executive director of the U Heights association.

"But at the same time, there is a tremendous opportunity right now to partner with the school district and come up with a model for what the district can do with its surplus properties — especially since it is about to generate even more surplus property with this new round of closures."

Seattle and King County have $2 million that could be spent to improve the grounds at U Heights but need an assurance relatively soon that the building will operate as a community center far beyond 2008.

U Heights officials also want a new long-term lease — perhaps as long as 99 years — so they can pursue historic-preservation grants to pay for repairs, including seismic retrofitting and the replacement of antiquated heating and plumbing systems.

"We would neither assume nor expect the school district to step in and pay for restoration of the building," said Mike Dash, U Heights association board president.

The school district isn't shutting the door on options for its surplus buildings, but a superintendent's advisory group has recommended against selling such properties, said Peter Daniels, district spokesman.

"The [School] Board wants to look at all of our surplus properties as a whole and maximize our revenues from those properties," Daniels said. "But that process is on hold right now. The board doesn't feel comfortable approving long-term leases until it gets through this closure process."

Within the bowels of the building, behind a series of creaky doors, the old heating system lurks. A boiler, built for coal but converted to gas, heats the place. A belt-driven fan, which looks as if it should be powered by hamsters, circulates the air. A pneumatic thermostat system regulates the flow.

The equipment has run dependably over the years. But if any piece of it failed, the building would have to shut down.

That would put out several tenants that lease about 70 percent of U Heights' space year-round. They include Northwest Choirs, a youth choral organization; Broadway Bound Children's Theatre; the private Puget Sound Community School; and Able Child day care.

Other rooms are leased by the hour, usually for meetings or night classes.

The U Heights association operates on an annual budget of about $480,000, funded almost entirely by rental income, and has no cash reserve. It pays the school district about $60,000 a year under the current lease.

The district undoubtedly could earn more money from the property — but U Heights supporters hope the district will cut the association a break, taking into account the community benefits of a long-term lease.

Dash said the center's and the district's values are compatible, as both focus on community, family and youth.

If U Heights secures a new long-term lease, officials would ask the community for ideas on the center's future, which could include housing marketed to teachers and an expansion of the farmers market.

"Based on conversations I've had, everyone is on the same page about U Heights continuing to stage the farmers market and even providing a larger footprint for it," said Chris Curtis, executive director of the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance. "It's going to be a challenge to redevelop the site, but it's also a golden opportunity."

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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