Thu12182014

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Church schools’ enrollment increase heads to city council

A request to expand enrollment at two schools on the grounds of Union Presbyterian Church is headed to the Los Altos City Council.

The Los Altos Planning and Transportation Commission last week voted 3-2 in favor of a use-permit amendment that calls for two private schools – Heritage Academy and University Child Development Center (UCDC) – to expand enrollment by a combined total of 20 students. Commissioners Jon Baer and Phoebe Bressack cast dissenting votes. Commissioners Jerry Moison and Ronit Bodner were not in attendance.

Heritage Academy – a private elementary school – seeks to increase enrollment by 14 students, with an additional six children for UCDC, a preschool. The request comes after the church – located at 858 University Ave. – sought a similar enrollment bump in 2011 for a combined total of 120 students at the schools. At the time, the city council approved the use permit with a combined enrollment cap of 100 students.

Heritage Academy Principal Marilyn Davidson told the commission that the church and its schools have been accommodating neighbors to residents, citing staggered on-site drop-off and pickup times for the two schools to minimize traffic impacts, as well as staggered recess periods to address noise concerns. Twenty percent of the two schools’ families hail from Los Altos, she added, while 38 percent participate in a carpool to reduce traffic.

The expansion is necessary, she added, to allow preschool children to continue at Heritage Academy, noting a desired 12:1 student-teacher ratio at the elementary school.

“We have been very, very good neighbors, we think,” said Davidson, who added that two playgrounds on the church site are open to the public and commonly used by neighborhood children after school hours.

Those comments were echoed by church elder Ted Brown, who said the church and schools seek to have a positive effect on the surrounding neighborhood.

“We want to serve the community and this is a neat way to do it,” he said.

Traffic impacts

Still, others feared that increasing the student population would exacerbate already troubling conditions for University Avenue residents.

Sangum Desai, a Madonna Way resident, told commissioners that the schools’ presence had “dramatically” impacted traffic in the neighborhood, pointing specifically to traffic jams at the intersection of El Monte and University avenues that often require three or more traffic signal cycles for a driver to pass through.

“If you add 20 more cars to that scenario, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said, adding that the schools should consider relocating to other sites to meet their enrollment needs.

The commission appeared split on the request before ultimately – and narrowly – passing a favorable recommendation.

Baer said he was voting against it, in part, because a traffic analysis conducted as part of the church’s 2011 request was “flawed,” noting that it didn’t adequately account for traffic conditions at the University/El Monte intersection, as well as nearby Foothill Expressway.

“If only the intersection wasn’t a problem, perhaps 20 (more students) wouldn’t be a problem,” he said. “But the intersection in this case is a problem.”

Bressack, commission chairwoman, offered similar sentiments, acknowledging that while the church and its schools “had many good aspects,” neighborhood traffic was a concern because the area contained “one of the worst intersections in town.”

Commissioner Michael McTighe, however, pointed to the schools’ emphasis on carpooling and said 20 more students wouldn’t necessarily mean 20 more cars on the road.

“I’m hard-pressed to say this is going to make a significant (traffic) impact,” he said.

Commissioner Jim Chiang added that he was voting in favor of the amendment, noting that several city schools continue to be impacted as more families move into Los Altos.

“The fact that this church is housing a school is actually a wonderful thing. … This is clearly an institution that has been around a long time and has a mission to help the community as a whole,” he said. “For us to kind of view it as something contrary to that is just a bit ridiculous.”

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