Like manna from heaven, a school campus-sized site may have opened up in North Bayshore to serve the thousands of new households being planned for the area. But it will be no easy task for local officials to secure 30 acres of lucrative land located just a stone's throw from Silicon Valley's richest companies. And the land itself has one key drawback: contamination from TCE, a dangerous chemical.
The site is Orion Park, a U.S. Army-owned property bordering Moffett Field that previously held 450 military homes. After a lease deal with a private housing developer fell through in 2005, the Army closed and demolished the housing in 2009, and left the site as an eerie pocket of vacant land amid a frenzied real-estate market.
Army officials recently published a request for proposals, offering to lease the site for the next 75 years. According to the provided materials, Orion Park could be leased for commercial uses, tech offices or even a school campus.
For months, local school-district officials have warned that the rapid housing growth being pursued by the city of Mountain View was creating a crisis for local schools. Nowhere is this problem more dire than in the North Bayshore, where the city is planning to eventually create a new neighborhood of about 10,000 new apartments.
That housing growth is estimated to generate up to 3,500 new students for Mountain View Whisman and Mountain View-Los Altos school districts. Officials from both the elementary and high school districts say they lack classroom space for so many new students and they would need to build new school campuses. Administrators at both districts say the most immediate obstacle is finding suitable land for future schools. Mountain View Whisman officials recently reported they would needed about 50 acres in total for three new elementary school campuses and one middle school. The Mountain View-Los Altos district, which would need a new high school campus, pegged its land needs at a little over 30 acres.
The possibility of a school at Orion Park was first brought up publicly during a City Council discussion that wasn't on the agenda at the June 21 meeting. Councilman Lenny Siegel asked whether the rest of the council was interested in getting involved and advocating for the site to be used as a school or perhaps for homeless services. He pointed out that the city could have considerable leverage, especially since any prospective development at Orion Park would likely rely on city utilities and services. Mountain View council members unanimously agreed they wanted to be involved.
"I think everyone's at the brainstorming phase right now on this," Siegel said to the Voice following the meeting. "We want to be part of the process here, and that includes having input on the use."
But it may be difficult to persuade Army officials that a public school would be the best fit for Orion Park. Federal agencies have a wide variety of authorizations they can use to dispense with unneeded property, and many of those avenues give significant priority to public uses. But City Manager Dan Rich warned the Army's lease package instead seemed to be designed to net as much money as possible.
"They're trying to get the best deal they can get," he said to the council. "We brought this to the attention of the school districts, but they'll have to meet the RFP process."
The Army's materials for Orion Park stipulate that representatives can give extra consideration to an offer from a public school district that is below the fair-market value of the lease. But this clause appears to be entirely optional for military officials. That could mean the main criteria for Army officials who are reviewing proposals, whether for a public school or a new Google office complex, will be how much money is offered.
Army officials did not immediately respond to the Voice's request for comment.
The market value for North Bayshore property remains in the stratosphere after years of high demand from tech developers. Mountain View Whisman administrators estimated that land costs for a new school could run as much as $15 million per acre.
Councilman Siegel said he believed the cost wouldn't be quite so high for Orion Park, since it has limited road access and considerable toxic contamination that would need to be addressed by any new development.
Both school districts have been notified of the lease opportunity as well as its challenges. Mountain View-Los Altos Associate Superintendent Mike Mathiesen told the Voice the district would likely give the Orion Park property a pass due to its challenges.
"In reviewing the details, it looks as if the Army is looking for market-rate lease and we are not in a financial position currently to pay market rate," Mathiesen wrote. "Building schools on contaminated soil and groundwater usually doesn't go over too well in the community."
Mountain View Whisman officials were non-committal in a brief comment sent via email.
"We appreciate the attention and forethought the city is devoting to this issue," wrote Mountain View Whisman spokeswoman Shelly Hausman. "Looking at all options and collaborating for student growth will ensure our schools are not caught off-guard in the future."