Idaho Falls charter school granted permit for O.E. Bell building

IDAHO FALLS – East Idaho’s newest charter school is one step closer to having a permanent home.

On Tuesday, the City of Idaho Falls Planning Committee granted a conditional use permit to Alturas International Academy, allowing the charter to occupy the historic downtown O.E. Bell building.

O.E. Bell building
The O.E. Bell building

“We couldn’t be more excited,” said Alturas principal Steven Andrew. “Having a school downtown is going to be a great opportunity for us and our students.”

Alturas currently occupies space in the old Melaleuca building off Yellowstone in Idaho Falls. It will serve 250 students in grades K-8 in 2016-17. The committee’s decision, Andrew said, further enables the school to gain occupancy of O.E. Bell by the start of the 2017-18 school year.

The building, which opened as a junior high in 1927, was renovated for office space in 1999. Erstad Architects, the Boise firm that handled the 1999 renovations, has been hired to turn O.E. Bell back into a school.

The firm’s owner, Andrew Erstad, fielded the committee’s questions during the meeting, which centered on parking and its impact on the surrounding neighborhood.

The city’s elementary and junior high parking requirements are based on the number of classrooms in use within a given schoolhouse. Erstad pointed out that Alturas requires 31 spaces, based on the city’s own formula; O.E. Bell will be able to accommodate 91. Forty-four of those spaces, however, are designated for a deli that will continue to occupy the south end of the building, even after the school begins its occupancy next year.

“Even with the deli, we will have an extra 16 spaces,” Erstad told the committee, “and I’ve never seen the deli fill up 44 spaces.”

Erstad pointed to a vacant lot across the street from O.E. Bell, which could also be renovated for parking, if needed.

The architect also revealed plans to renovate the school’s own parking lot. A proposed playground will be built in the center of the space, located in front of the building. Parents will enter the parking lot at a north entrance, circle the playground and drop students off at the school’s front doors. The resulting “stacking effect” of cars will ensure smooth and safe drop-off procedures, Erstad said.

Committee member George Swaney commended Erstad’s presentation, calling it a “good plan.” Swaney praised the architect and the school for holding a community meeting last month, which enabled those living in the neighborhood to ask questions and voice concerns.

One more step is required for the school to secure use of O.E. Bell next year, Andrew said.

Building Hope, a nonprofit organization that helps charter schools receive loans for facilities, is under contract to purchase O.E. Bell from current owner Hannah’s Holdings, LLC.  Once the purchase is finalized, Alturas will lease the building from Building Hope at an interest rate of “between five and six percent” for five years, according to Dru Damico, vice president of real estate development. Once the lease is up, O.E. Bell will be sold to Alturas.

The building still needs some major schoolhouse upgrades, Erstad said, including doubling the number of current restrooms in order to accommodate the potential influx of students.

Swaneyy said the committee had no reason to intervene with internal renovations of the building.