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Op-Ed: CSUS Teaches Us Lessons about Doing Business in Belmont

The author is the Belmont Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs and Economic Development chair.

Belmont has always been a unique place for a business to locate. So what’s new with Crystal Springs Uplands Schools (CSUS) application to the Belmont Planning Department and subsequent appeal to the Belmont City Council? What messages and urban myths will continue to be perpetuated by this process that will affect future business from considering their locating to Belmont? Certainly from my perspective as a business owner, I was encouraged when CSUS was told in April 2011 that Belmont was receptive to the idea of locating their school to the office park on Davis Drive. So what went wrong?

How has this issue risen to such high levels of anxiety in the Belmont Community? Let’s take a deeper dive into Belmont politics to understand the uproar.

The main issue should be if a school is an appropriate use for vacant office buildings on Davis Drive and if it would be a benefit to the city. The school’s plan is for a 52,000-square-foot building on a site where 83,000 square feet of buildings are now. An office use would generate traffic and currently this property has entitlements that would allow for up to 850 employees, presumably each driving their own vehicle. A school use would generate traffic with estimates closer to 250 people at this location. A school would not generate city revenue because it is nonprofit and tax-exempt. However, CSUS has offered a one-
time $1 million payment to the city and annual benefits worth more than $250,000. CSUS has been willing to make concessions because it really wants to be in Belmont.

Seems simple enough to me! A lower impact and intensity usage should work for this property. The hurdle has developed because Belmont’s Zoning must be changed from Office to School. In Belmont politics, this sort of variance is “an opportunity” for the Planning Commission and the City Council to say: Wait it doesn’t fit and you must do _________ to make it fit so that we will change the zoning. So time has passed and CSUS has met every objection. Environmentally the Belmont Planning Commission accepted the Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) which reviewed the environmental impacts of having CSUS’s plan approved. So what’s the problem of welcoming the intellectual investment that CSUS
would bring to Belmont? Some say traffic is the biggest problem, however the MND stated CSUS traffic would not jam Ralston at peak traffic times. CSUS traffic would arrive and leave before peak Ralston Avenue traffic times. By contrast, the traffic experts noted, a return of office use for this property would increase traffic at peak traffic times. Currently at peak times, traffic is very high because of the population bubble at Ralston Middle School (1066 students).

The problem boils down to the vocal NIMBY’s who have elected our Belmont politicians. These self-righteous NIMBY’s are trying to say their way is the only way. The NIMBY’s would like to continue to have no use for buildings that have stood vacant and unused for over four years. The NIMBY’s would have you believe every red herring they throw out. The NIMBY’s would say, well traffic is bad now, and any usage would make it worse. The NIMBY’s believe that a California Environmental document such as the Mitigated Negative Dec and all of the traffic studies are big-lies. The NIMBY’s believe they are math experts when they that state a $1 million dollar initial payment and $250,000 per year to the City
of Belmont is not enough.

Well NIMBY’s or not, I hope the City Council, in their wisdom will be able to weigh this matter logically and review with a keen eye the information received. The City Council has the ability and experience to get down to the true issues. From my perspective those issues revolve around what it takes to Do Business in Belmont.

resident October 03, 2012 at 02:10 AM
The focus on NIMBY is losing the big picture and just adds to the cloud over doing business in Belmont. Imagine what other businesses or institutions are thinking as they watch what goes on. We complain about our vacancies and want to encourage people to locate their enterprises here because we want their tax revenue (or in CSUS's case, payments in lieu of taxes that are greater). Yes, I think CSUS would be a great use for the Davis Drive site. But my bigger fear is the message Belmont is sending about what it is like to do business in our city.
Denise Nelson October 03, 2012 at 02:22 PM
Hi Ms. Parden, NIMBY? I had to look the term up. While I appreciate your views, I do not apprciate be ing boiled down to jargon. It is my backyard. Where is your backyard? Is it even in Belmont? I know your job is to be a voice for Belmont business... Not that you asked, my opinion is that we have to do a balancing act. Balancing the what will do the most good for the most people here in Belmont. That is how the City should vote. It isnt just about doing business in Belmont nor is it just about how it will affect the residents (of which I am one on that hill), but if it will positively affect the greater portion of the City. If the answer is yes then the vote is clear, regardless of your opinion or mine.
Denise Nelson October 03, 2012 at 02:28 PM
Sort of a PS.... It does seem you don't care for the residents of Belmont much by your verbiage about the voters in our City. I do hope that wasn't intentional. I vote responsibly and do not appreciate being lumped into your new political party "The NIMBY".
Sue October 03, 2012 at 03:42 PM
Denise, perhaps that is why she lives in Redwood City.
Mary Morrissey Parden October 03, 2012 at 03:55 PM
Denise and Previous Posters -- I do call Belmont my home since 1969 and my business address at the Carlmont Shopping Center since 1987. I have an interest in Belmont Politics and Belmont Business and great care for the residents of Belmont. However, it is my opinion that Belmont Politics and Business are like oil and vinegar. They make a good salad dressing when mixed, but oftentimes no one stops to mix them up. There are reasons that Belmont should value business and one of the largest is for budget and infrastructure purposes. Tax revenues also help to offset the significant Debt Service that Belmont owns. When you have elected officials (City Council) or appointed Commisioners (by the City Council) not willing to find a balance for business in Belmont; not only are the commercial buildings empty (Cengage has been empty 4 years), but the City suffers on a budget level. Please look around, note increased the lack of business in Belmont and the regular turnover of business. Please compare the business/residential ratio amongst other municipalities; even if it is just by driving through areas that you like. Yes, many Belmont Council members were elected because they are no-growth or slow-growth. Yes, I think it is because they appealed to the voter who thinks they don't need an active business community.
Mary Morrissey Parden October 03, 2012 at 03:55 PM
I am glad no one argued with my CSUS position, but I hope the posters who objected to the common planning acronym NIMBY consider the balance that must be achieved to support Belmont who has a low sales tax base, crumbling infrastructure, increasing crime and a significant debt service. I think we all want the same thing if we value Belmont... let's try to strike it in a balanced fashion!
unreal October 03, 2012 at 04:04 PM
Thank you for that, much appreciated...
Sue October 03, 2012 at 06:01 PM
You say that the term NIMBY is common in your circles despite the fact that it offends so many (see the various comments above). If you and the business/planning community are truly interested in getting along with residents and our elected officials, perhaps you should consider not insulting them. Quit blaming residents and elected officials for not getting along with you and take a look in the mirror.
Timothy E. Strinden October 03, 2012 at 06:57 PM
How can you say, "...no one argued with my CSUS position." Mike Cunneen, Joe Brennan and I all argued with it. It's hard to have a reasoned discussion with someone who insults her opponents and ignores their arguments.
Belmont October 03, 2012 at 07:44 PM
On a slightly different note, I would like to bring up a recent issue in the Belmont community which was very divisive, Koret Field at NDNU. There were people against it and people for it. I watched the most recent Planning Commission meeting in September, and it was stated that since Koret Field was opened up to the local soccer leagues, there has only been 1 complaint within the past 12 months. (You can check this fact for yourself with the City.) How fantastic!!!! Apparently, meetings were held between NDNU and local neighbors and any issues have been resolved. This issue was discussed for years and everything worked out beautifully through an open dialogue with the community. Also, I do want to point out the CSUS is ranked by the Washington Post in 2012 as being the 7th ranked small, private high school in the ENTIRE UNITED STATES. To me this sounds like an incredible opportunity for Belmont. I respect all opinions and just wanted to point out this is a really high quality school which could potentially benefit many families in Belmont....Respectfully yours, Mary Beth
Denise Nelson October 03, 2012 at 07:53 PM
Thank you for taking the time to respond. I love your salad dressing analogy! It is difficult to find that balance, I agree. However, I have to trust our Council to do exactly what they are elected for and decide by what will achieve the most good for the most people. That includes looking at businesses and residents in Belmont. I look forward to vote. And thank you for the column. Op/Ed columns are just that, your opinion. It helps enrich us all to hear different sides of any issue. Sometimes we even learn something...
Joe Brennan October 03, 2012 at 08:04 PM
What does Koret Field or CSUS' ranking got to do with the ticking financial and traffic times bombs that threaten the future of Belmont? How many families in Belmont will benefit, as opposed to those who will lose part of their unique quality-of-life because of the CSUS project?
Rob October 04, 2012 at 01:11 AM
Hi Joan, why is this topic pushed back yet again? Can you let us know? Thank you.
Rob October 04, 2012 at 01:17 AM
Joe, the traffic issue has been addressed. You'd rather have 500-800 employees in and out of Davis Drive spilling out at commute time, lunch, breaks, etc...give me a break it would be WAY worse than what CSUS brings to the table. And they are willing to work with the city. Ya gotta move in from that topic as one if your main points. It doesn't make sense.
Joe Brennan October 04, 2012 at 01:30 AM
You're entitled to your opinion. However, the traffic survey submitted, corrected and re-submitted by CSUS was found to be fatally flawed, and the City asked for a new traffic survey. No, we don't gotta move from this topic until a legitimate survey confirms that traffic will not be impacted.
Joan S. Dentler (Editor) October 04, 2012 at 03:23 AM
Hi Rob...yes, the CSUS agenda item has been continued to the City Council regular meeting of Oct. 23 at 7:30pm due to the availability of Mayor Dave Warden.
Rob October 04, 2012 at 04:45 AM
Lol...ok Joe. You hold out for that report. I'm sure it will be a "shocker".
Joe Brennan October 04, 2012 at 04:59 AM
Quite possibly a shocker; time will tell. You are entitled to your opinion but not your own facts.
Gin Nikoloff October 04, 2012 at 11:54 PM
Mary is a very bright woman who has worked so hard for the Businesses and Residents of our City. Mary has been a true steward for our City, and has experienced several changes in our City Council guard. Many are getting caught up in an Acronym, instead of the importance of the funds that our city could use. Hmm when was the last time your street lights were out, that would be almost all the time! Could we use more police, hmmm probably with all the robberies recently? Do you shop and support our stores here in town? Outsiders do!! The points Mary have made are all true. If an office building of even 500 employees moved in, the flow would be 500 in the peak morning hours, about 650 (65% that go out to and from) noon time and 500 adding to peak afternoons. One other note, a building cost about $25M for property/land tax would give you $250,000 in property taxes. Belmont would not be sharing these funds with the County, it's all for Belmont! I think we have a gift that I would hope Belmont does not lose to a neighboring City! Ie. Industrial Road!!
Gin Nikoloff October 04, 2012 at 11:56 PM
Mary is a very bright woman who has worked so hard for the Businesses and Residents of our City. Mary has been a true steward for our City, and has experienced several changes in our City Council guard. Many are getting caught up in an Acronym, instead of the importance of the funds that our city could use. Hmm when was the last time your street lights were out, that would be almost all the time! Could we use more police, hmmm probably with all the robberies recently? Do you shop and support our stores here in town? Outsiders do!! The points Mary have made are all true. If an office building of even 500 employees moved in, the flow would be 500 in the peak morning hours, about 650 (65% that go out to and from) noon time and 500 adding to peak afternoons. One other note, a building cost about $25M for property/land tax would give you $250,000 in property taxes. Belmont would not be sharing these funds with the County, it's all for Belmont! I think we have a gift that I would hope Belmont does not lose to a neighboring City! Ie. Industrial Road!!
Gin Nikoloff October 05, 2012 at 12:10 AM
Again, putting in school and housing less people is to the future benefit of Belmont's future traffic flow. It will be horrific if even 500 employee move in. Don't forget the mid-day traffic it can cause. The FUNDS are so important for our city. If a business moved in, we would be sharing the property taxes with the County. I think have an esteem school would only add to our esteem City. We need to be more proud of our City, I hope you feel that!?!
Timothy E. Strinden October 05, 2012 at 01:04 AM
There are currently larger businesses in the park than the ones in question, with full parking lots, and I don't notice excessive delays on Ralston from these businesses even though I drive by almost every day. I doubt your claim that 65% drive out for lunch, and even if they did, 65% of 500 is 325, not 650. I believe traffic from the school would be more of a problem because it is so concentrated upon arrival and departure. Businesses usually allow their employees more flexible work hours, so would have less of an impact on Ralston traffic.
Denise Nelson October 05, 2012 at 02:03 AM
I know this won't be popular but here goes. I lived on the hill when that area was full of employees. The traffic challenge was minimized by the dollars those same employees spent at Carlmont Shopping Center and other areas. Buying lunches, gas, groceries, etc brought much needed funds to local businesses. Is there no company interested rather than a school? I only ask because students won't bring a cent to our local businesses. Just curious as I am catching up on the issue after spending the last few years in San Mateo.
Jacob October 05, 2012 at 02:42 AM
We are getting way to overcrowed here. Check our population per square mile, google it if you have to. It is insane.
Jacob October 05, 2012 at 02:48 AM
Belmont I guess does not care about the current strain this is causing on our roads above and below them. Us as residents are getting no say.
Charles Stone October 13, 2012 at 04:58 AM
Mr. Strinden, 1) Yes, it is possible that both parties could agree to renegotiate a contract. But I can't think of many circumstances in which the city would agree to give up money. Can you? As I've said before, there is certainly the spectre of bankruptcy or financial failing...but that's a ghoul (going with the Halloween theme) that's out there for all property owners. 2) I understand your point but we have vastly differing views. Any substantial increase in property tax revenue would have to be the result of a substantial upswing in property values coupled with a change of ownership or a redevelopment of the property. My understanding is that the property is currently valued (for assessment purposes) at $11M. I don't know what FMV is but given the age and condition (as well as long term vacancy) of the property I'd guess it's not too far off of that. If the property is not reassessed, it will take many, many years for it to generate $250,000.00 a year in property tax revenue. And, if Cengage holds the property and appeals the assessment successfully, the assessed value would fall with a correlating drop in property tax revenues. This would extend the $250,000.00 horizon out even farther.
Charles Stone October 13, 2012 at 05:03 AM
Further to my below comment: But I don't see redevelopment as likely. Judging from the resistance to a beautiful environmentally friendly state of the art school, I'd anticipate the resistance to a less environmentally friendly new office building (without the community accessible field aspect, mind you) will be much greater. It just doesn't seem likely. Meanwhile, if the city doesn't approve the CSUS deal, each year while we wait for this magic speculative redevelopment to occur we'll be losing over $100,000.00. And this assumes the magic speculative redevelopment actually occurs at some point. So yes, I acknowledge that it is theoretically possible someone in the next 50 years will buy that property and redevelop it resulting in $25M or greater assessed value (in present value.) But that's a theoretical possibility. The money from CSUS is real and it's being offered now.
Annie October 13, 2012 at 05:45 AM
What you are forgetting is that "if" (no offers on the table) a business goes into this area you can have over 400+ cars a day during peak driving hours, morning and evening, even with flex time. This will be a far greater "strain on the road" than a school, that the start time is 7:45 am, tuition also pays for transportation from Caltrain to the school, parents also carpool. This will impact traffic in the morning slightly, and not the evening commute. CSUS is trying to mitigate the impact of traffic. CSUS has gone through this process because Belmont City Council accepted the offer to look at their proposition. Why would the Council accept the offer if they didn't want the school. The Council knew they would have to change the zoning code. This is the question. Why after CSUS have answered the concerns, paid to have surveys about traffic, agreed to change school hours, offer funds to make up for tax losses, offer their playing fields and be good neighbors is the City Council , who accepted the offer to have CSUS submit a proposal, reject everything they have offered. CSUS should come to Belmont, We should be welcoming a school that is one of the top in the nation. I agree most Belmont residents won't have their children enroll, but if you live in Berkeley you child probably won't go to Cal.
Gin Nikoloff October 13, 2012 at 07:10 AM
Annie, right!! Also, people that drive out to lunch have to go back to work, hence 650 drivers.
Timothy E. Strinden October 14, 2012 at 05:02 PM
Mary and several posters have provided false data concerning traffic from a potential business to mislead us to believe it would be worse than a school. I counted the parking spaces at 6, 8 & 10 Davis Drive and there are only 205, so that would be the maximum number of cars arriving or leaving during the day. I don't know where Mary, Rob, Gin and Annie get their figures of 400 to 850 cars, but they are nowhere close to reality. The only way that could happen is if the current buildings were replaced with much larger multi-story structures and a multi-story parking garage. I doubt that the city would approve that, and if it did, it would probably raise the appraised value of the property over the $30 million that CSUS is spending and result in higher property taxes than CSUS will pay. I don't notice any particular traffic problems from the active businesses currently in the park, with about three times as many parking spots as the proposed CSUS site, and I didn't notice any problems in 2009 and earlier when the CSUS site was occupied. Also, there is a cafe in 20 Davis Drive that workers in the park may use, and many people would bring their own lunch, so I doubt as many as half would drive out for lunch, which might be 100 cars at most from the CSUS site. I believe it is clear that schools with their concentrated arrival and departure times would present more serious traffic problems than businesses in the park with their more flexible schedules.

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