Mountain View's city leaders are beginning to lay the groundwork for transforming 17 acres of federally owned land into a high school, a park and an affordable housing complex.
It's an idea that won favor at the Oct. 29 City Council meeting, though city staff cautioned it's going to be a long shot. Trying to cram all those priorities onto one site may not be feasible, since the U.S. Army wants to make as much money as possible from the sale of the land.
Shenandoah Square is pretty unusual property: It's a 17-acre island of unincorporated land in Mountain View at the corner of Moffett Boulevard and W. Middlefield Road, owned by the Army and used to house military and federal employees in 126 townhouses. The Army signaled it no longer needed the housing, and in 2015 began a process to sell the property.
Over the last year, Shenandoah has been particularly appealing to Mountain View's local school districts as a way to house thousands of students projected to come from new housing development in the city. In May, Mountain View Whisman Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph sent a letter to the Army stating that the land could be sold or leased to the district to build a new school, providing a major public benefit to the community. City staff began working with the district on a possible shared-use arrangement to place affordable housing at Shenandoah next door to school facilities.
Mountain View Whisman later backed off the idea due to the "projected price and availability" of the land, according to district officials. Around the same time, the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District subsequently announced it was considering the property for a possible school site, drawing up early architectural designs that place 12 acres of school facilities next to what would likely be open space.
High school district Superintendent Nellie Meyer said the district has "expressed interest" in developing Shenandoah along with several other large properties big enough to house a high school, but that's about it. The district has yet to talk directly to Army officials about a potential purchase agreement.
Costs are likely going to be a big problem for the high school district. The Army is looking to make a hefty profit off the sale of Shenandoah, which will go toward paying off debts incurred from other housing investments elsewhere in the state. Instead of following normal rules that give local agencies a chance to acquire surplus federal property for public uses at no cost, the Army received a special exemption and can go straight to a public sale of the property, according to a city staff report. In other words, any buyer is going to pay fair market value for the land.
Redevelopment plans from 2015 show just how much the Army's vision for the future of Shenandoah differs from the city's goals. The Army, through the company California Military Communities LLC, proposed transforming the 17-acre site into a high-density housing complex with 1,143 units, rezoning the property for buildings up to seven stories tall and annexing it into the city of Mountain View.
Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga said the Army's legislative bypass to get more money from Shenandoah is "concerning," particularly when the land has so much potential, in a prime location in Mountain View and ripe for public uses like affordable housing and schools. Housing is important, she said, but the property marks a big opportunity to make a statement with all-affordable housing units and public schools.
"There's a lot of potential," she said. "It's too valuable to just say go ahead and build 1,000 market-rate units on it."
Council members generally agreed they want to work with the high school district on turning Shenandoah into a community asset, but it's unclear how they plan to get there. Councilman Lucas Ramirez said it's going to take some "creative funding" strategies to cobble together enough money to satisfy the Army, particularly when the proposed uses -- affordable housing and schools -- aren't terribly profitable.
Councilman Chris Clark said if the city wants all of its priorities crammed onto the property, including open space, then they are going to need to allow a tall urban design.
"I would like to utilize this site to its maximum potential (and) have the school be as dense as possible," he said.
Mayor Lisa Matichak doubled down on the importance of park space separate from fields for use by the high school, adding that she made compromises on parks at the recently approved 777 W. Middlefield Road apartment complex -- located right across the street -- under the assumption that the federal land would eventually be developed with publicly available open space.
In addition to the competing priorities, the city also has to contend with federal lawmakers opposing the sale, arguing that the roughly 108 military and civilian families residing in the existing Shenandoah housing would be displaced and have nowhere to go. Finding an alternative use for the site that doesn't displace existing tenants would be a priority, according to a 2016 letter signed by 11 members of Congress including Senator Diane Feinstein and Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jackie Speier.
City Manager Dan Rich cautioned that the council's vision for Shenandoah is going to be hard to accomplish, and may need to bank on things like the sale of development rights (TDRs) in order to help finance the purchase and construction costs.
"This is going to be extremely challenging to come up with anything that has a remote possibility of working," Rich said. "Neither the school district nor the city and the uses we're talking about are profitable."
Moving forward with the City Council's plan effectively ends the Army's original application for building 1,143 homes on the property, which has been dormant for a while and has not been refined for close to two years. Rich said the city failed to inform the Army of the Oct. 29 discussion.
"They've been sitting and doing nothing for two years, and there have been meetings with them, so I don't frankly lose sleep over that," he said. "But if we're gonna formally kill their proposal I feel like we have an obligation to at least let them know that."