The Los Altos School District's board of trustees voted unanimously last week to spend $155 million to buy land for a school in the San Antonio shopping center in Mountain View, calling it a bargain. The new campus will become an integral part of the neighborhood as it becomes densely developed with housing, trustees said.
What exactly to do with the land, though, is still up in the air. The next several months will be devoted to what trustees are calling a "community engagement process," originally described as a way to sell the community on the idea of relocating Egan Junior High School to the San Antonio site.
The district announced in June last year that it was seeking to purchase 11.65 acres of land owned by Federal Realty, located at the corner of Showers Drive and California Street. Through a complex partnership with developers and the city of Mountain View, the district is expected to defray most of the $155 million in land costs, and will only be out-of-pocket $27.7 million -- less than one-fifth of the sale price.
The district reserves the option to back out of the deal without any penalty until Oct. 25, at which point a $1 million deposit becomes nonrefundable. Assuming all goes according to plan, the school campus will by open by 2024.
Trustees have long argued that a school is a must-have in the San Antonio area of Mountain View, which is part of the Los Altos School District and the focal point of the district's projected enrollment growth. Two projects in the area alone, the 632-unit Greystar project on California Street and the 583-unit complex under construction on San Antonio Road, are an order of magnitude above what's planned in Los Altos, according to a demographic report last year.
With much of the area being rebuilt at higher densities, now is the time to stake a claim and ensure schools and park space make it into the area, board member Bryan Johnson said at the June 19 meeting.
"This is the one of the very few, maybe the only, example right now of a situation where public amenities are going to be built along with that housing on a scale that's commensurate with the neighborhoods that currently exist," Johnson said.
Cities like Mountain View are rapidly growing to address the Bay Area's regional housing crisis, Johnson said, and proposed changes to state law are only going to accelerate the construction of new homes. But in the rush to build more housing, the worry is that park space and schools may be an afterthought.
He pointed to the neighboring Mountain View Whisman School District, which is pushing Google and the Mountain View City Council to set aside land for a new school, as proof that the Los Altos School District made the right move with San Antonio.
"If you look at North Bayshore, Mountain View Whisman is currently fighting to try to get 3 acres to have an elementary school over there, and it's not clear if they will be successful," he said. "We can't pass up this opportunity."
In order to defray the cost of the $155 million land purchase, the district is planning to immediately resell 2 acres of the site to the city of Mountain View for $20 million to develop as a public park. Mountain View also will be kicking in $23 million in city park fees for joint use of the future school's fields and athletic facilities.
But the most lucrative and complicated part of the deal is the transfer of development rights, where the district agrees not to fully develop the land to the maximum of its high-density zoning, and instead sells to developers the remaining 610,000 square feet of density entitlements. The transfer of development rights (TDR) sale will generate $79.3 million, which the district will receive when the developers receive project approvals from the Mountain View City Council.
Who will attend?
With the land purchase all but set in stone, school board members are now focusing on what to do with the site, which currently has retail tenants that include a Kohl's department store.
The original proposal put forth by the school board in April was to relocate Egan Junior High to the yet-to-be-built school in Mountain View. This would satisfy the city's requirement that it be a campus that serves students living in the area, and would also free up Egan's large campus on Portola Avenue. The hope, according to trustees, was that Bullis Charter School could be moved to the old Egan site.
Bullis Charter School is currently housed in portable classrooms on the edge of both Egan and Blach Intermediate School in Los Altos, long considered a short-term solution to the long-term problem of where to put an increasing number of charter school students. Bullis is expected to grow to 1,100 students in the coming school year, making it infeasible to relocate the entire school to the new Mountain View site.
What's more, the Mountain View City Council barred the district from moving Bullis to Mountain View without giving neighborhood children preference, something the charter school, with its perennial waiting lists, has never considered.
But relocating Egan was met with an icy reception, with parents and community members packing school board meetings throughout April to protest the idea. Relocating a school is effectively a school closure, they argued, and giving Bullis Charter School a cherished campus in exchange for a cap on charter school enrollment amounted to a concession offering little in return.
The proposal was also difficult to stomach because the other options for a long-term facilities agreement were discussed and rejected behind closed doors. Representatives from the school board and Bullis Charter School had hammered out the details of the agreement in mediated negotiations over the course of several months, and parents demanded that those considerations be made public.
The school board agreed to spend $70,000 in consulting fees for an eight-month community engagement process starting this month, which will include an arduous walk down memory lane to show no stone went unturned. In 2012, for example, the district considered several options for housing Bullis including placing the charter school at Covington or Santa Rita elementary schools, closing one of the public schools in the process.
Several task forces and advisory committees grappled with the same question since then, and the goal is to bring together all reports in a "digestible" way over the course of the summer, so that participants in the community engagement process can be brought up to speed, said board president Jessica Speiser.
Although the community engagement process is expected to bleed into next year, the uncertainty over how to use the school site is not expected to cause any delays in the planning and construction of the school, according to district officials.