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March 22, 2023

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New Washougal schools must meet Gorge standards

Design of two sites have to mesh with the natural environment

By , Columbian Small Cities Reporter
2 Photos
Washougal's Jemtegaard Middle School is slated for replacement after the passage of a $57.7 million bond measure in February.
Washougal's Jemtegaard Middle School is slated for replacement after the passage of a $57.7 million bond measure in February. The campus lies within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, which imposes special restrictions for new buildings. Photo Gallery

As summer approaches, the Washougal School District is preparing to design three new campuses funded by a $57.7 million bond measure recently approved by voters.

Two of those new schools — an elementary and a middle school — will reside in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, which imposes a range of special design restrictions for any new building project in the 85-mile-long stretch of protected land. The overarching intent of the restrictions is to make sure any new buildings mesh with the natural environment.

The two new schools will be built under a shared roof next to Jemtegaard Middle School. Designs haven’t been fleshed out yet, but the elementary should be able to house about 400 students and the middle school — which will eventually replace Jemtegaard — should accommodate up to 600.

Last week, the district signed contracts for design and construction on the new facilities.

Before anything can move forward, though, the district’s application to build in the scenic area will have to undergo review by county planners working with the Columbia River Gorge Commission. In the process, planners pick over every line of a proposal, from the more minute details of size, color and height to the big picture questions of what impact the building would have on natural and cultural resources nearby.

For this project in particular, structure, location, grading and just about all the other nuts and bolts structural details shouldn’t be a problem during the review process, said Joe Steinbrenner, the district’s facilities director.

“The challenges are more with the exterior of the building,” Steinbrenner said. “They’re more concerned with lighting, shiny objects, how much glass you have on the exterior, the color of the exterior.”

The point is to make sure the new schools won’t be visible from the nearest viewpoint across the Columbia River, the Vista House at Crown Point, he said.

“They want it to blend in to the site,” Steinbrenner said.

The district hired LSW Architects to design the three new schools. Part of the reason for choosing the firm, Steinbrenner said, was its experience in working through the Gorge Commission’s permitting process.

Clearing backlog

District leaders are hopeful that construction in the scenic area could begin by June 2016. But, of course, it all depends on the speed of the permit approval process, and Steinbrenner notes that the Gorge Commission has a lengthy backlog of applications to process.

A bill currently sitting in the state House would eliminate that backlog, clearing the way to expedite the permit process for more recent applications. If the bill dies during the special session, construction may not start until June 2017, he said.

The bonds will also cover the construction projects outside the scenic area: a new bus barn near the district’s headquarters on Evergreen Way, a number of security upgrades at existing campuses and a replacement for Excelsior, Washougal’s small alternative high school. Those projects are on track to begin in 2016.

The new buildings will also be designed to serve the district for the next 50 years, Superintendent Dawn Tarzian said. The new elementary will eliminate the need for portables, so children won’t have to cross parking lots or step outside while going from one classroom to another.

“I would say top of the list is improvement in student safety,” Tarzian said.

Administrators are in the initial stages of planning a design symposium for early June, she said. The meeting will allow the public to share some thoughts on what should be incorporated into the new facilities. It’ll also give them a chance to meet Washougal’s incoming superintendent, Mike Stromme.

District leaders anticipate the new schools will be open no later than September 2018, if all goes to plan. They plan to finish putting together a master schedule for the projects this summer.

Columbian Small Cities Reporter