The decision-makers in Durango’s school district have missed an opportunity to do not only what is best for the community but also what is expected: to have a public conversation about the future of its historic Administration Building and the adjacent structure that houses Big Picture High School.
The school board cites receiving three proposals for the property. One proposal came from an out-of-state enterprise that would put high-end condominiums in the building. Another, from locals Charles and John Shaw, would do much of what they’ve so successfully done across the street in the Smiley Building, plus include attainable teacher housing. Lastly, the Durango Fire Protection District would relocate its Station No. 2, now at River City Hall on Camino del Rio, and administrative offices, now at Bodo Industrial Park, to the Administration Building/Big Picture complex.
Does this summarize the proposals correctly? Were there more than three? We don’t know the answers to those questions, as the school board would not release the content of the proposals. It was not until the board announced that it liked the fire district’s proposal that most of the public learned of it.
Sorry, but that is not how a tax-supported – heavily tax-supported – public governance organization should handle the future alternatives of very significant property near the center of downtown Durango. The 9-R Administration Building, built as a high school in 1916, looms over the end of Second Avenue at 12th Street. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and the Colorado Register of Historic Properties.
Yes, we know that the Durango Fire Protection District needs more space, ideally centrally located, and improved egress. The district has been searching for a downtown site for five years and has vetted 19 sites that didn’t work. The River City Hall site – into which it moved in 1983 – was supposed to be a temporary home, and simply isn’t adequate anymore.
But what the Shaws have added to downtown Durango with Smiley, the former middle-school building – which houses artists and nonprofits – is significant. Many members of the public would like to see the Smiley success replicated.
Meanwhile, if the property goes to the fire district, how will fire trucks exit? Onto Second Avenue and south, or west, down to Main Avenue? The station answered about 1,900 calls in 2020. How much noise and traffic disruption would be caused?
The fire district says it will replace the Big Picture building with bays for the trucks. How would that challenge the architectural appearance of the 1916 building and the view from East Third Avenue, what we call colloquially “The Boulevard”?
Before signatures are applied to any documents, the 9-R Board of Education must convene a series of conversations about what has been proposed and allow adequate time for public comment about what is most desirable for Durango. Real estate deals require secrecy in final negotiations, of course. But this is an exchange of publicly owned property that demands the greatest degree of transparency and input. It will change the look and use of the neighborhood in a significant way for decades to come at the very least. While we do think maximizing the value of the property is important, so is preserving and/or enhancing the aesthetics of the area.
Of course, no matter what is decided, some people won’t be happy. But the Board of Education should realize it has opened a can of worms it can’t now seal. Its ethical obligation is to welcome the public to the conversation – albeit belatedly – and make a decision that takes into consideration the will of the people. A better understanding of the options will result, and who knows, perhaps some good ideas.
To do otherwise would be unfortunate.