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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.

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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