"From a market standpoint, there was really no interest in this building," says Paul Fischburg, standing amidst the evolving disarray of the old Frank B. Cooper School in the Delridge neighborhood, which lies off the first exit westbound from the West Seattle bridge. "It's the main gateway to the community, yet it's the symbol of disinvestment."
Delridge is a neighborhood in transition, caught in the increasingly familiar Seattle act of balancing a culturally diverse, low-income population with the influx of first-time homeowners. Parks, family service centers, and authentic ethnic restaurants coexist with the new coffee shops and Bed Bath & Beyond that have recently sprung up.
While construction workers are busy revitalizing the stately 1917 Cooper School, it isn't just the building that Fischburg hopes to save through renewed attention. As executive director of the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association, Fischburg is out to transform the neighborhood itself. With a performance by the Seattle Symphony set to bring up the curtain on the massive renovation at the end of January 2006, the new Historic Cooper Cultural Arts Center isn't the typical solution to the needs of its surrounding population.
"What does the community need?" Fischburg asks rhetorically. "Our organization is about erecting a thriving Delridge community. [It's] got recreational facilities for the kids [yet we haven't been] embracing curriculum."
Capital Campaign Director Gina Hall, reflecting on the customary approach to neighborhood development, agrees.
"The first thing [developers] want to put in," she says wryly, "is basketball courts."
There will be no basketball courts at the refurbished Cooper, an elementary school boarded up since 1989, although the gymnasium's hoop may hang around. Most of the old school's features—chalkboards, lockers, and the grand wooden staircases that still seem to hum with the buzz of past voices—will be retained, even after part of the gym is converted into a green room to accommodate the actors who'll eventually perform in the 150-seat theater that used to be the auditorium.
The nearly $12 million Cooper project, just one segment of a three-pronged venture that includes a food bank/resource center and the construction of affordable town homes, began seven years ago with money from the Department of Neighborhoods and the dream to open up West Seattle—not just to itself, but to the rest of the city.
There should be a lot for the city to utilize. In addition to the theater, the ground floor of the school will feature recording and dance studios, a media lab, classrooms, and administrative office space for several nonprofit arts partners (like the Pacific Northwest Ballet and Theatre Puget Sound). The second and third floors will be devoted to reasonable ($380–$650 per month) live/work spaces for artists.
With all the possibilities, officials hope to maintain a flexible identity for the center.
"I don't want to bind us to a really rigid structure," says Cultural Center Director Randy Engstrom.
What excites Fischburg the most, however, is the practical way that its many components can play off each other and the neighborhood itself. He thinks partner organizations like Arts Corp, an after-school arts education program, will flourish in the new location.
"They've never had a home base," Fischburg observes. "Now they're going to be rooted in a community that fits their mission."
The work isn't done yet, of course. Though generous grants from the Gates and Allen foundations, among many other corporate and individual donors, have provided most of the necessary funds, there's 3 percent more to raise. But you can feel things finally taking shape, which couldn't raise Fischburg's spirits any higher.
"It's amazing to walk through here," he marvels. "It's happening."
For more information on the Historic Cooper Cultural Arts Center, see www.onecommunitycampaign.org.