A letter Los Altos School District Superintendent Jeff Baier sent to the Mountain View city manager June 8 revealed that the district has changed course in its plan to purchase land for a 10th school site.
Baier unveiled the district’s plans to acquire Federal Realty’s land on the eastern side of The Village at San Antonio Center, where Kohl’s department store sits, rather than continuing to pursue the Old Mill site near California Avenue and San Antonio Road.
The owners of the Old Mill property entered into an agreement with Greystar, an international development firm, several years ago and are partway through the planning process for a mixed-use project. The district would have to invoke eminent domain to seize the land, a prospect that prompted vigorous protest and the promise of lawsuits from both the landowners and Greystar.
Unlike Greystar, Federal Realty is more open to negotiating a deal with the district, according to Baier and district Trustee Steve Taglio.
“We think it’s a better situation for the school district,” Baier said of eyeing the new site. “It brings greater dollar certainty and greater time certainty, which are two important things. So, we can get this project moving.”
Baier noted that the Kohl’s property is larger than the Old Mill site – 9.65 acres versus 8.6 acres, allowing more space for a school and park.
Taglio said the district initially didn’t focus on the Kohl’s site because occupants had signed long-term leases.
“What we thought made the site unattainable was the leases,” he said. “We thought there were long-term leases in place we couldn’t afford to buy out. But after conversations with Federal Realty, it looks like it’s flexible – more flexible than we realized.”
The Mountain View City Council is scheduled to discuss the school district’s new decision Tuesday, according to Mountain View City Manger Dan Rich.
Decision draws mixed response
Before district officials decided to pursue the Kohl’s site, Los Altos resident David Roode had publicly suggested the idea to them twice. He told district officials that the Kohl’s site is the only one among all the sites they reviewed with an owner who is likely to use the city-approved transfer of development rights, which enable the district to purchase land zoned for more development than it needs, then sell the excess zoning rights to a developer interested in expanding a project on a different site.
“I do think I had influence on keeping that idea in the mix. But ultimately the merits probably came out on their own,” Roode said of the district’s new direction.
Although Roode said the Kohl’s site is a much better choice than the Old Mill property, he is not sure that a 10th school campus is necessary, given limited growth in the district’s seven-year enrollment forecast, which excludes potential housing projects without a determined numbers of units.
Roode discussed the enrollment forecast at a June 13 meeting hosted by Creative Facilities Solutions, an advocacy group that is urging the district to redistribute schools on existing land rather than purchase a new site.
Another speaker at the meeting, Ying Liu, presented a cost analysis of purchasing the Kohl’s site, contending that the deal would leave the district with no money for facilities upgrades.
Liu’s presentation raised questions from attendees about whether the district had issued any projections for what the new land purchase and construction would cost.
Trustee Bryan Johnson, who attended the meeting, said district officials are in the middle of real estate negotiations and can’t disclose any numbers.
When the Town Crier raised residents’ financial concerns over the project with Baier, he said that without an eminent-domain lawsuit, the Kohl’s deal would most likely enable the district to save money for facility upgrades.
“Anything that lowers the cost of land acquisition helps to accomplish that goal,” he said.
Baier noted that the board of trustees’ top priority for Measure N funds – the $150 million bond approved in 2014 for facilities upgrades – is to accommodate growing enrollment, and it plans to use remaining bond proceeds to upgrade and repair existing school sites.
“We have engaged hundreds of our community members over the past five years,” he said. “We considered their input and developed the district’s direction, which has brought us to the point we are today.”