New arts high school would cost $240 million

Pub date January 14, 2014

Art advocates have tried to move the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts high school to its new home on Van Ness street since 1987. On Jan. 7, the dream moved one step closer, the only barrier is cost.

At a packed San Francisco Board of Education meeting, planners revealed the move’s sticker price, and it’s a big one: $240 million. Board of Education President Rachel Norton’s face sunk into one hand as she heard the news.

“There’s a big challenge going forward,” said David Goldin, chief facilities officer of the San Francisco Unified School District. “I don’t want to minimize that challenge for one minute. But for the first time in a long time, we’re close to having an architectural reality.”

The school is named for one of its founders, artist Ruth Asawa, with deep roots in San Francisco history as an arts and education activist. It has a unique education model: students attend academic classes in the morning, but spend two hours every afternoon learning a specific art discipline.

SotA is currently housed at the old McAteer campus on Twin Peaks, with its sister school, the Academy of Arts and Sciences (disclosure: I taught students video editing at SotA as a contractor until last summer). Collectively they have 1,000 students enrolled.

The cost of moving the school to the site on Van Ness is steep for a number of reasons, SFUSD spokesperson Gentle Blythe told us. SotA’s new home was formerly the High School of Commerce, and was granted historic landmark status — meaning the facade, at the very least, must be preserved. The building needs a seismic retrofit as well.

Most importantly, though, the cost is so high because the new site would be crafted with the arts in mind.

“It’s a high school for the performing arts with non-standard design considerations, including height of ceiling, and sophisticated electronics,” Blythe said. The building will be crafted for dance studios, orchestra rooms, multimedia facilities and more. It’s also not just a school: the district would also build an on-site auditorium that could seat 47,000 attendees.

By comparison, the new Willie Brown Middle School comes is budgeted at $55 million, Blythe told us. But the chief facilities officer said the price to move SotA was comparable to the cost of newer public arts schools in the US.

San Francisco artists came out in force to advocate for the move. First up to the podium to speak was the music director of the San Francisco Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas.

“I’m 10,000 percent behind this idea,” he told the board. “My dream is to do a Big Brothers Big Sisters program with all the grades, to share that vision with younger people.”