After years in limbo, the former Federal Reserve building in downtown Seattle soon may be given away for free.
That’s right — free.
Nonprofits that serve the homeless have first shot at the six-story structure — and at least one coalition plans to submit an application in the next few weeks.
Eight downtown groups, mostly representing residents, together are urging Seattle Public Schools to apply as well, saying the district could use the building to house a public school.
The district is interested, but isn’t sure it wants to put much work into the effort until it’s clear it has a shot.
Other suitors may emerge, as the General Services Administration (GSA) — the federal government’s real-estate arm — goes through the complicated process for disposing of surplus property.
The building, with 90,000 square feet of space, has been vacant since 2008, when the Fed moved its regional offices to Renton.
The first step is complete: The GSA has determined that no federal agency wants the 65-year-old building, which sits on Second Avenue between Madison and Spring streets.
The next two steps proceed in tandem: An application process for groups serving the homeless, and a separate one for state or local governments wanting to use the building for any of about a dozen qualified purposes — including opening a school.
If no application is approved, the building would go up for public auction.
For the homeless coalition and the school district, the building represents a rare opportunity to acquire a piece of prime real estate at little or no cost for the building and the land, though a successful bidder would be responsible for all renovation costs.
Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King Coalition on Homelessness, called the building an incredible opportunity to help end homelessness. The applicants, including groups belonging to her coalition, will propose using it as a hub for services such as emergency shelter, health care, mental-health services, job training, even a bank and post office.
She said the applicants submitted a letter of interest in the building earlier this year and plan to complete their full application soon.
The downtown groups, coordinated by the Downtown Seattle Association, envision the building as a possibly cost-effective way to put a school in the city’s central core. By the association’s estimates, the area now has 600 students who ride buses to schools in nearby Queen Anne, Capitol Hill and the Central Area.
For several years, downtown interests have been pushing the district to locate an elementary school downtown, saying the school-age population continues to grow. There is one public high school already in downtown Seattle — Center School, on the grounds of Seattle Center. But the area has had no elementary or middle school for about 65 years.
The downtown groups would like the school district to research the building sooner rather than later so that it’s in a good position should the homeless proposal not work out. They are also lobbying the city to help.
“One of the district’s challenges with developing a public school downtown is that they don’t own land or a building,” said Jon Scholes of the Downtown Association. “Here is land and a building that could be conveyed to them at no cost.”
The building is close to the downtown public library, the Seattle Art Museum and the transit tunnel, he said. It has a roof that could be turned into a playground, he added, and already has a cafeteria.
But the school district may wait to see what happens.
Lester “Flip” Herndon, the district’s assistant superintendent in charge of facilities, said Friday that the price is attractive, and the district does need space for its fast-growing enrollment, but it would take a lot of work even to determine if the building could work as a school, and at what cost.
The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which Herndon said might limit what renovations could be made. The GSA already has identified about $40 million in costs in three areas: removing asbestos, seismic retrofitting and updating systems such as gas and electric.
“Right now we’re not devoting a lot of time and resources to it, just because … if it’s not even a possibility, it’s not even a possibility,” he said.