The following is a copy of a letter which I have sent to the Belmont City Council urging approval of the proposed Crystal Springs Uplands School middle school campus on Davis Drive.
I am writing to express my support of the Crystal Springs Uplands School middle school project for 6-8 and 10 Davis Drive. I will be unable to attend the City Council meeting where you will take up this project on September 11, 2012 as I will be attending the back-to-school night for parents at Ralston Middle School. However, although I will not be able to speak at your September 11 meeting, I wanted to put on record my reasons for supporting this project.
The issue that should be before the City Council is whether the proposed project is an appropriate land use of privately owned property. Simply put, the Crystal Springs Uplands School middle school is an appropriate use. The current office building and warehouse are approximately 40 years old. Given a location far from most amenities businesses desire and the existence of better available properties in neighboring areas, the existing buildings are no longer attractive to businesses. Contrary evidence does not exist. A change is necessary to enjoy meaningful use of the property. The current private owner, Cengage Learning, has no desire to participate in that change. Instead, it has found a willing buyer, Crystal Springs Uplands School, which has proposed an alternative use of a new middle school campus on the property.
The proposed campus is a thoughtful, well-designed campus that is integrated into the location and considerate of its surroundings. It has a Green design, replacing an older energy inefficient building with an energy efficient, environmentally friendly structure, and eliminating asphalt in favor of landscaping. Our community should support this and the City Council should welcome these property improvements.
There are only three legal reasons why the City Council can even consider the appropriateness of this alternative use; two of which arise regardless who is looking to construct an alternative on the property. First, there is a right to consider whether the proposed construction is an appropriate design, and second, there is a right to determine whether there are adverse environmental impacts from the project which have not been adequately mitigated. Finally, the City Council can consider the appropriateness of the use due to the necessary zoning change.
With regard to the first reason, as I mentioned above, this is a well-designed Green project. Please consider the alternative construction likely necessary to entice a business similar to SunEdison to choose a remote site such as Davis Drive as opposed to occupying an existing modern building in Redwood Shores, Foster City, San Mateo or elsewhere. Please also consider whether the design of such a building that would suit such a business is what we want sitting perched above the canyon. Finally, please consider the tax breaks that would most likely need to be offered to encourage a developer to build such a building, or a business to occupy it. I suspect that with the opposition that has been stated to this project, that there would be almost no support for construction of a new office building on Davis Drive even if it was possible to locate a developer willing to proceed with such a project.
Turning to the second issue, much has been examined and written about the Mitigated Negative Declaration, with experts retained by Crystal Springs Uplands School, the City and others looking at issues such as traffic and noise. However, despite opposition on the Planning Commission to the entirety of the project, it concluded by a 6-1 vote to recommend the Mitigated Negative Declaration to the City Council because Crystal Springs Uplands School has adequately provided for the mitigation of adverse environmental impacts.
Third, the City Council can consider the appropriateness of the alternative use proposed for this property only because of the conversion from office space to a school. Many opponents have confused this issue as being driven by the fact that as a non-profit, Crystal Springs Uplands School is exempt from paying property taxes, but that is irrelevant. If a non-profit or other exempt entity purchases the buildings from Cengage Learning but does not change the building use (look only across Davis Drive where the County of San Mateo has offices to see that this is plausible), property taxes would still disappear. But in that scenario, the City would have no input because the use would conform to existing zoning. Thanks to the proposed zoning change, the City has been given a tremendous opportunity to do something positive with the property.
In addressing the appropriateness of the proposed land use, opponents have turned this discussion into a referendum on many other things – whether Belmont has too many schools, how many Belmont children will get to go to this school, effects on traffic (notwithstanding the expert opinions and the Mitigated Negative Declaration), and the loss of an office building used by businesses. Only the latter has any relevance; but only insofar as there might be a loss of property tax revenues. Here, because of the proposed Development Agreement payments by Crystal Springs Uplands School, that factor does not exist. There is no other benefit provided to Belmont by a business of the type which would occupy such a building.
At first I did not fully understand why there has been such opposition to a thoughtful proposal such as the Crystal Springs Uplands School middle school campus. But after reading the opposition of a former member of the City Council, I believe that I now understand. There are residents of Belmont who consider it a quiet oasis of beautiful hills and canyons that provides a respite from the rest of the Bay Area; a residential-only community like Hillsborough or Atherton where no business (or noise) should be interposed. These residents seem to see themselves as the last line of defense against the outside world intruding into Belmont. Not surprisingly given that the most tangible evidence for them of such intrusion has been in our schools, Crystal Springs Uplands School is now the target as they fight back. Although the number of public school elementary students in Belmont during the last 30 years has remained relatively flat, those students attend two fewer schools, with one-and-a-half campuses having been sold to private schools (Charles Armstrong and Serendipity). Furthermore, growth in Redwood Shores has resulted in the number of students attending Ralston Middle School almost doubling, and Carlmont High School has seen a nearly 50% student increase. Opposing this proposal is a natural for those who already object to this growth in the student population.
I respond that the increase in the number of students attending schools in Belmont is a positive. It is likely that just as is the case with me, most parents of the 1,500-plus public elementary school students residing in Belmont today were not living here 30 years ago; thus evidencing property turnover as people from outside Belmont have moved into the City. This leads to increased property values which have numerous benefits. Changes in the surrounding cities have also positively affected our local school communities; both as it brings in increased revenues to support the Belmont Redwood Shores School District and the Sequoia Union High School District and diversifies the student population.
More importantly, the entry of outsiders into Belmont has a much needed positive effect on our tax base, establishing the mix of residential properties turning over and a thriving business community that we require in order to generate sufficient tax revenues. We are not Hillsborough or Atherton; we are not able to live off the tax largesse that multi-million dollar residential properties provide. Rather, the flow of people into Belmont enables us to pay for the services provided by our local government agencies.
I for one want my elected leaders to embrace the flow of people into Belmont and lead us into the future (while taking consideration of that which makes Belmont unique), rather than to form a bulwark against the encroachment of the outside world in an effort to maintain stasis and disprove that the only constant is change.
As a member of the Belmont Redwood Shores School District’s Parcel Tax Oversight Committee and counsel to School-Force, I have become intimately familiar with the state of finances of Belmont’s public schools and the inadequacy of property taxes to pay for the excellence which we enjoy. Although the organization of our local government agencies results in the school districts being separate from the City, it is only the latter which has the ability to effect the property tax base which supports the former. Given the unquestionable important role high performing public schools play, it is therefore incumbent upon City leaders to lead us into a future that has a growing property tax base. I demand no less than a City Council with a vision that will provide for appropriate and necessary growth, not one that fights all change, particularly when it is well-thought out. I know that many others in Belmont will join me in this demand.
The opponents to the middle school have not stated a vision that provides for the economic needs of the City. The suggestion that a business might desire to use the existing Davis Drive office building or that a new office building should be built there to try and maintain current zoning is no more than a pretense to maintain the status quo of non-occupancy that does nothing to improve the property tax base or the government revenues being produced. Furthermore, we should not accept the proposition that Crystal Springs Uplands School should look to non-existent opportunities east of 101 to build its new middle school. In addition, we must show the business community that smart designs that consider the environs and preserve (and even enhance) the beauty of Belmont will not be chased down a rathole of wasted dollars. Crystal Springs Uplands School has proactively considered all that might be asked of it in designing a middle school that would fit into Belmont. It has also reactively responded to the planning process and has made an extraordinary financial offer which far outweighs what Belmont will see if current zoning is maintained. If these efforts prove to be unsuccessful, why would a for-profit enterprise want to do something that would enhance our property tax base in a natural business zone downtown? When we need the tax revenues that businesses can generate, we should not be sending clear messages to the business community to bypass Belmont.
Finally, I respond to opponents who argue that a middle school campus for Crystal Springs Uplands School “does nothing” for our community. Community use of the proposed all-weather soccer fields alone does more for Belmont than the current vacant buildings and asphalt parking lots. Additionally, the money being offered by Crystal Springs Uplands School in its proposed Development Agreement is by far a significant contribution to the community, and quite likely more than we could expect to see from a for-profit enterprise. The $250,000 annual payment well exceeds the amount that is currently or in the future likely to be collected in property taxes by all taxing agencies, and also exceeds what is necessary to make the school fiscally neutral to the City. The City is also capable of diverting excess funds to offset potential losses to other taxing agencies (which it should be doing as suggested by Crystal Springs Uplands School in the Development Agreement, including having funds paid to the Belmont Redwood Shores School District and Sequoia Union High School District). In fact, the City, is in an opportune position to benefit the public schools by being able to distribute more revenues to the school districts than the property currently derives for the school districts, while still maintaining more funds than necessary to preserve neutrality. This is an improvement over current or other possible future conditions. In an era of tight government finances, we should not disregard this as a benefit merely because it can be perceived as an “outsider buying its way in.”
In closing, building the Crystal Springs Uplands School campus is an opportunity to do something that is a smart land use for an underused piece of private property. We should be excited about this opportunity to have an environmentally friendly Green school replacing an old, vacant complex. I urge the City Council to approve the project on September 11.