Calling a neighborhood school and park land a top priority in the San Antonio Shopping Center area, Mountain View City Council members agreed Tuesday night to give the Los Altos School District latitude to "sell" development rights in order to afford a campus in a region desperate for open space.
In a study session, council members supported allowing the school district to acquire expensive land in the San Antonio area -- valued at over $12 million an acre -- and transfer the unused office and residential development capacity to a developer elsewhere in the city, which could include North Bayshore and East Whisman. This would allow the district to purchase the land at a substantially lower cost, making it feasible to build a school with limited resources.
In order to sweeten the deal for potential buyers, the city would also allow developers to convert "transferred" residential development from San Antonio into office space. The school district would need to shift a total of 600,000 square feet of development, according to a city staff report.
Los Altos School District officials have struggled for years to find land for a new school campus, conducting an exhaustive search for properties in the San Antonio area -- where the district's boundaries spill over into Mountain View -- as well as along El Camino Real. District voters passed a $150 million school bond measure in 2014 to finance a new school, but little progress has been made to put the money to good use.
Nearly one in three Los Altos district students reside in Mountain View, and a vast majority of projected enrollment growth is expected to occur in the San Antonio area, making a school in the region -- as expensive and built-out as it is -- a critical part of the district's strategy for future growth.
Council members made it clear that under most circumstances, they wouldn't have tolerated such generous contributions. They opened the door for residential development to be converted into offices at a time when the city is fighting to fix its poor jobs-housing imbalance, and allowed hundreds of thousands of square feet of development to move from one carefully crafted zoning plan to another. But it would be worth it if the payoff includes getting a school and a public park in the San Antonio area, Vice Mayor Lenny Siegel said.
"Getting a school in this part of town is a high priority for me, and I'm willing to put up with some things that I wouldn't otherwise put up with -- even a small amount of extra offices in North Bayshore -- to make that happen," he said.
"I would prefer residential, I would prefer spreading it around, but this is our last, best chance to get a school in the San Antonio area, where it is drastically needed."
Councilman Chris Clark said it gives him "heartburn" to give up homes in favor of offices after spending years figuring out where to put residential development in the city, but he conceded that it may be a necessary step to bring a school to the region. The council still has to grant final approval for each transferred development right, and the assumption is that developers are going to make a good-faith effort to spread it out rather than pile it all into one place, Clark said.
"If what we get as a (proposal) is half a million square feet in one space, they should understand there's a pretty big risk they're going to get a 'No' vote on that," he said.
School district officials made clear from the outset that any restrictions or conditions imposed on transferring development rights would throw the school district's entire plan into jeopardy. Board member Bryan Johnson said the district needs "maximum flexibility" in order to create a robust buyer's market for developer rights, particularly early on in San Antonio's transformation into a dense commercial and residential center of the city.
"If we don't act now, we will likely never be able to do this," he said. "It won't be available again in our lifetime once projects in the San Antonio Precise Plan are completed."
Along with making development rights as easy to sell as possible, council members agreed to ramp up the city's commitment to pitch in money for open space adjacent to a school site. A total of $6 million per acre -- up to $23 million -- from the city's park land dedication fund would be available for joint-use park land.
Stephen Friberg, president of the Greater San Antonio Community Association, told council members that the region has long been under-served, and has a "clear" need for both a school and parks and field space. The San Antonio area has the lowest ratio of park space per 1,000 residents than any other area of the city -- only 1.34 acres -- making it all the more enticing to jump on the opportunity for athletic fields and open space.
"As we add apartments and condominiums, business and office buildings, and experience increased amounts of traffic, we have to balance it by adding facilities for the people who live in the area," Freiberg said. "There's an opportunity that will be lost if we don't grab this chance, so let's grab it."
Add it all up, and the value of the development rights and the park fees could exceed $100 million in contributions by the city to encourage a Los Alto district school site in Mountain View.
A neighborhood school or a charter school?
A big question hanging over the meeting Tuesday night is what kind of school Los Altos district officials envision for the region. Would it be a standard elementary school welcome to nearby residents, or would it be the new home of Bullis Charter School, a magnet program that draws students from all over the district?
As it stands right now, the Los Altos district's board of trustees has not resolved that question. Part of the reason for the delay is that Bullis requires a larger footprint -- it has more than 800 students from kindergarten through eighth grade -- and the district has no idea how big the Mountain View school site would be.
Councilwoman Pat Showalter, participating in the meeting by phone, said she wanted to encourage the school district to make it a neighborhood school, which would add more value to the San Antonio community than a magnet school that draws from a broad region centered in Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. It's a reasonable stipulation to give to the school district, she said, given the "tremendously generous" package of incentives the City Council is allowing through the transfer of development rights and park land dedication funds.
Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga agreed, pointing out that the charter school would put an additional strain on traffic in the region as parents drive farther distances for pick-up and drop-off.
"If it were a magnet school, we would have people driving from all over and we would have traffic issues, and we know San Antonio is already congested as it is," Abe-Koga said.
Although a majority of council members showed strong preference for a neighborhood school, they declined to make it a condition for allowing the transfer of development rights and the park funds. Siegel said he was hesitant to get the city involved in the "complicated issue" of facilities under discussion by the charter school and the district, which in the past has led to bitter disputes and lawsuits.
"My preference would be for it to be a neighborhood school, but I do not see this council getting involved in the hornets' nest of issues between the Los Altos School District and Bullis Charter School," he said.