The Mountain View City Council last Tuesday night grappled with a difficult balancing act between two competing priorities: encouraging more housing growth and providing enough money to schools to support a deluge of new students expected from the planned rapid development.
New and planned zoning changes, along with projects already in the pipeline, show the city is slated to grow by as many as 20,000 homes -- or about a 75% increase to Mountain View's existing housing stock. The new development is expected to generate thousands of students, and school district officials say they simply don't have the money to accommodate them all.
Estimates vary, but the land and construction costs for additional school facilities could reach $1.2 billion. City Council members generally agreed at the Oct. 15 study session that the city, schools districts and developers should all share in those costs, but struggled to come up with a fair three-way split that doesn't potentially kill the feasibility of future housing projects.
The core question before council members was the so-called Local School District Strategy, a policy that requires large projects in the North Bayshore, East Whisman and Terra Bella areas of the city to finance local schools bearing the brunt of increased enrollment. Developers and school districts have struggled with how to interpret the policy.
If the city is going to allow high density housing, then it needs to mitigate the burden on local schools, said Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga. She said some schools are already packed with students and experiencing higher enrollment, and there's only so much districts can do to raise money for new school construction.
Abe-Koga advocated for an aggressive fee amounting to $13.16 per square foot of development, which would place only one-third of the costs on the school districts, according to a city staff report. It may cut into the council's goals for housing growth, but she said it's important to support local schools along the way.
"I have never believed that it should be housing at all costs, and I have always said that we need to maintain our community and our quality of life as we grow and build more housing," she said.
Abe-Koga's comments were echoed by school board members and leaders of the Mountain View Whisman and Mountain View-Los Altos High school districts, which both serve students residing in the North Bayshore, East Whisman and Terra Bella areas. Mountain View Whisman trustee Devon Conley said that while she agrees housing is a priority, she urged the council to support schools and residents over for-profit developers looking to maximize their investment.
"I understand the need for housing, I desperately want more housing, and I want to make sure it happens. But when we have that housing we need a place for children to go, and there is just no way our schools can support the expense," Conley said. "It's $15 million an acre -- we just can't do that."
Councilwoman Alison Hicks said she wanted to find a way to shift the burden away from residential developers and onto commercial projects, particularly because the Bay Area's housing crisis is a direct result of office growth. She generally favored higher fees for schools, but said she didn't have enough information to back a specific amount.
Councilman John McAlister took a different approach, arguing that schools need to bear the burden of more than one-third of the costs and have "more skin the game." He said school leaders have a responsibility to take the lead on addressing enrollment growth and increasing capacity rather than expect the city to extract fees or help pay for it.
"I'd like to see the school districts drive this issue, not the city," he said.
To date, only one developer has paid off its obligation to school districts through the existing framework of the school strategy, which was a clear example of the shortcomings of the policy. School districts demanded that Sobrato pay $24.4 million for its housing development at 1255 Pear Ave., while Sobrato countered with a $7.25 million offer. The City Council split the difference, asking the developer to pay $12 million.
Adding complexity to the discussion was precisely how many students would come from the new housing development. Demographers hired by the school districts believe 3,601 students will be generated by the city's future building plans, with about two-thirds attending Mountain View Whisman schools and one-third attending Mountain View-Los Altos. The city hired a different consultant and landed on a more conservative projections of 2,575 students in roughly the same split.
Council members did not vote, but asked staff to come up with options for a balanced fee that could be higher for commercial development. Staff is expected to return with options early next year.
Although the discussion Tuesday largely centered around monetary contributions, developers can also provide a land dedication for a school site or adjacent open space to satisfy the requirements for the school strategy. City staffers also floated the idea of using the Transfer of Development Rights (TDRs) that could shift the location of developments in order to make room for a school. TDRs were integral to an ongoing plan by the Los Altos School District to build a school in the San Antonio neighborhood of Mountain View.