Schools at the Heart of Communities: Bush Elementary, Salem

Eliminating parking lot regains neighborhood feeling, character

Bush Elementary, one of Salem’s oldest schools, was a neighborhood school about a century ago. Over the years, however, the neighborhood changed. A major highway and an overpass bisected the area, impeding children’s safe walk to the school.

And the neighboring hospital desperately wanted land on which to expand.

With visions of flashing ambulance lights and drivers screeching up to the emergency room, concerned school and community members decided it was time for Bush Elementary to move.

“We engaged in a large community outreach effort about siting the new school,” said former Salem-Keizer School Board member Bonnie Heitsch. 

Parents, the neighborhood association, and representatives from nearby Willamette University and the city were among those involved in siting discussions. Although the group didn’t reach consensus on all issues, participants did agree that the school should remain in the neighborhood.

“Because the school is located in the central city, it would have been cheaper to build further out and bus the students to school,” Heitsch said. “I was adamant that we keep the neighborhood school in an area where kids could walk. As it worked out, we only moved a few blocks, over railroad tracks, over the highway and away from the hospital.”

The school board negotiated a sale with the hospital and found a new site in the neighborhood that adjoined a small city park. Some older rental houses had to be knocked down to build the new school, and special care was taken to be sensitive to neighborhood concerns.

“The community was involved in the process of determining the character of the school building,” said project architect Henry Fitzgibbon of Soderstrom Architects of Portland. Careful planning and design ensured that the new buildings would reflect the style of the existing older homes. The stone front porch of the school, muted colors -- even the concrete sides of the gym that look just like wood siding -- keep the feel of the 1940s-era houses that surround the school.

“The neighborhood was uncomfortable about taking out rental housing to build the school but we think that, in the end, Bush School improved the neighborhood,” Fitzgibbon said.

Bush Elementary’s neighborhood site allowed only four acres, instead of the usual eight acres, for the school. But the adjacent park makes the site seem larger, according to parent Gaelen McAllister, who served on the school’s citizen advisory committee.

“The park space is used much more now that the school is there,” she said. The play structure, soccer field and covered basketball areas that the school put in enhance the park for after-school and weekend users.

The new school building is also community-friendly in its design, McAllister said, and is used often in the summer and evenings by outside groups.

Fitzgibbon explained that the building was designed in sections so school personnel can be flexible in closing off portions of the school when other sections are being used.

Another ‘people-friendly’ aspect of Bush Elementary is the on-street parking -- and the elimination of a large parking lot.

Heitsch credits the City of Salem for enabling the school to resolve the parking issue in a creative way.

“A city ordinance required us to have a parking lot,” she said. “The lot would have had to be located between the school and the park. It would have taken up valuable green space, chopped up the site, and forced kids to wade through it to get to school. The city’s waiver of that ordinance was one of the greatest helps to the project,” Heitsch said. “We have plenty of street parking along the sides and front of the building.”

“Fundamental urban planning” is how Heitsch describes the pedestrian-friendly design of Bush Elementary. Students, parents and community members can walk right in to Bush without negotiating the barrier of a large, concrete parking lot.

Bush Elementary School’s physical size got smaller in its relocation, but the school got better, according to Heitsch. The percentage of students walking to school has greatly increased, to almost 60 percent, she said.

“More parents come in to school now, too,” adds McAllister. “They walk their kids to school, and they stay to talk and visit. We’re not isolated now,” she said. “The school is part of the neighborhood.”

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