EvCC carving a place to grow

  • By Melissa Slager and Jennifer Warnick / Herald Writers
  • Saturday, August 13, 2005 9:00pm
  • Local NewsLocal news

More than four decades ago, the trees Don and Arlene Comstock planted at their Everett home were mere saplings, not much younger than the junior college that moved in to the west four years before them.

Michael V. Martina / The Herald

Beth Adolphsen teaches her anatomy and physiology class last week at Everett Community College.

Those Douglas firs, ponderosa pines and a cedar will be uprooted soon, as will the Comstocks and their home that houses memories of raising three children.

“We were hoping to stay here the rest of our lives,” said Don Comstock, 71.

Instead, their place will be part of a new parking lot and Everett Community College’s ambitious eastward expansion.

In the next 25 years, the college could spend as much as $325 million in today’s dollars renovating or replacing nearly every square foot of classroom and office space it has. It will expand 14 acres to build five more academic buildings.

As EvCC begins to reshape its campus, the growing pains are being felt not only by the college, but in the living rooms and over the cash registers of those being displaced by its growth.

Still, even among those home and business owners, there is recognition of the cramped campus’ need to expand.

The college has about 10,000 students and expects to grow to 16,000 by 2027. One of the state’s fastest-growing community colleges, EvCC also is among the most overcrowded with 91 square feet per full-time equivalent student – less than the average elementary school.

“We’re just catching up,” college President Charlie Earl said.

By the end of 2011, the college will have spent about $120 million to build an arts and sciences building, a parking garage and an Undergraduate Education Center, as well as renovate or replace 10 buildings.

By 2027, it envisions adding five academic buildings, a second parking garage and placing a main entrance on North Broadway.

“We’re a large institution, and right now we’re sort of tucked away in a neighborhood,” said Michael Kerns, vice president for administration. “We want to be out there on the main drag.

“It’s ambitious. It’s aggressive. But it’s doable,” he said.

Dealing with growth

When then-Everett Junior College opened in 1941 in an elementary school, it filled an educational void. A survey of its 128 students showed just 15 thought they could go to the University of Washington or Washington State College if the junior college didn’t exist.

By the time the college moved to its current campus in 1958, it was bursting at the seams.

Today, it’s a similar story.

Enrollment has grown 30 percent in the last decade to 5,983 full-time equivalent students, who increasingly are coming to the campus while still in high school – one of several new roles community colleges play today compared with six decades ago.

The average age of an EvCC student is 32. Adults come to learn English, earn a GED certificate, acquire job skills or simply take up a hobby.

There also are traditional high school graduates starting higher education.

Most of EvCC’s buildings have been occupied for more than 20 years, while six are original to the 47-year-old campus. Like other community colleges at the time, they were built hastily at low cost, and the expense to renovate is greater than building new.

Instructors say they look forward to having room to expand programs. “We’ve been really cramped,” ceramics instructor Thom Lee said.

Buying up land

For something the size of a college to expand in the middle of a city, something’s gotta give. In this case, it’s a motel, a bowling alley, a counseling and education center for pregnant women, a 20-unit apartment building, a gas station, a used car lot and six single-family homes.

So far, the college has received state money to purchase three of eight residential and business sites on a 14-acre section between Broadway and North Broadway.

The city of Everett also will purchase four houses to make room for the $3 million College Station transit center it plans to build as part of the expansion.

The college has paid about $2 million so far for the Tyee Lanes bowling alley, the Comstocks’ home and a neighboring rental house, including relocation and moving.

Comstock and his wife, Arlene, 67, said college administrators have been good to them, and they aren’t the kind to create problems.

As a public institution, the college has the right to take property as part of its project. That process, called eminent domain, is not a question of whether the college can purchase a home or property, but for how much. More often than not, public entities use appraisers to negotiate a fair market price with landowners rather than out-and-out seizing property.

For the Comstocks, that price was $196,500. The rental home next door drew $200,000 and the bowling alley $1.1 million.

“I don’t say nothing about progress. I know the college needs to grow,” Comstock said. “But I think we kind of got took.”

The three sites, in a row along Tower Street, will be turned into parking by fall to make up for spaces being lost to construction of a $27 million arts and sciences building.

EvCC has yet to negotiate prices for the other businesses, but it could spend up to $12 million for them, Kerns said.

Pregnancy Resource Center, a Christian ministry that supports pregnant women, expects to have two years before it has to move, chief executive officer Stan Kellner said.

This is its third Everett location in 22 years, so the center is accustomed to moving.

“We totally understand,” Kellner said.

Some business tenants on land held by Seattle owners have expressed frustration at being forced to move. A handful declined comment, noting that they are waiting to see how much money they will get.

Joan Swendsen said her advice is to look for a new place now. She and her husband, Ken, were among 20 homeowners displaced the last time EvCC expanded, building Shuksan Hall in 1999.

“I still miss my house. I loved that house,” Swendsen said, recalling the spacious Craftsman-style home that overlooked a golf course and mountains. “It’s traumatic to move, of course, when you don’t want to. But it worked out fine.”

The Swendsens landed a few miles away in a smaller home. Swendsen said she sees the college’s growth needs but feels sorry for those being displaced.

“There’s nothing you can do to stop it, that’s for sure,” she said. “Big bulldozer, big pile and it’s gone.”

A new gateway

City leaders believe the community college is not merely adding 14 acres worth of campus, but helping to reshape north Everett.

Mayor Ray Stephanson, who attended EvCC before being drafted into the Army, said the college would become a centerpiece in a rapidly changing area.

Along with the college’s growth, Providence Everett Medical Center’s Colby campus is planning a $400 million expansion. The city is considering a community recreation center on the north end. Also, Asarco, a former contaminated smelter site, is undergoing cleanup in preparation for home-building.

“There’s kind of this momentum around north Everett,” Kerns said. “I doubt there’s ever been a time in Everett’s history that so many institutions have been working on these issues at the same time.”

The expansion will give the college the space it needs to house more upper-division classes offered by universities.

Though city and county leaders have long been pushing for a four-year state college, more classes at EvCC mean more residents with expertise for businesses to draw on.

“Companies want to be where there’s an educated work force,” Stephanson said. “We believe our ability to attract aerospace suppliers, biotech, manufacturing and other high-tech companies is really dependent on having higher education closer to our community.”

Clock is ticking

All of the building plans are dependent on lawmakers approving the dollars that go with it. So far, the college has received $65 million.

Under the plan, new buildings would edge the college up to 100 square feet per full-time equivalent student by 2014, said Tom Henderson, capital budget manager for the state Board of Community and Technical Colleges. But that is even below today’s 112-square-foot average, he said.

“They’ll be well positioned to continue the expansion of the college as they request funding for projects,” Henderson said.

Meanwhile, Roger Severson and his wife moved into a rental home on Tower Street two years ago. Their landlord told them then the college expansion was at least five years off.

Now, he’s packing boxes and moving to Marysville.

“It was kind of a shock. We wanted to stay here another year so we could get our granddaughter through school,” Severson said.

Next door, Don Comstock pruned a vine that wrapped around lattice on the back patio. There, cookbooks and tools sat on picnic tables for the couple’s ongoing moving sale. They said they plan to buy a manufactured home and move to Marysville.

Comstock picked a leaf off the vine. “Let them have the weeds.”

Reporter Melissa Slager: 425-339-3465 or mslager@ heraldnet.com.

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