Los Altos School District officials announced last week that they plan to use eminent domain to acquire land on the eastern side of the San Antonio Shopping Center for a new school, abandoning plans to buy the site of the Old Mill and former Safeway across the street.
In a letter to city staff on Friday, June 8, Superintendent Jeff Baier revealed that the district is now seeking to buy 9.65 acres of land at the corner of California Street and Showers Drive, currently owned by Federal Realty and slated for future mixed-use development in the same mold as the western side of the shopping center.
Baier told the Voice in an email Wednesday that the Federal Realty land has been on the district's radar for years, and that he and district officials opted to pursue the shopping center property because of its larger size, which he said would translate into more space for school facilities and a city park.
Although district leaders have typically left the door open for negotiations before suggesting that land be taken, the letter to City Manager Dan Rich states on no uncertain terms that the district will acquire the site "through condemnation from Federal Realty Investment Trust for the future development of a new school and public park."
The district had sought to acquire 8.6 acres of land at the corner of San Antonio Road and California Street, which includes single-story commercial buildings, the Old Mill Office Center and the shuttered Safeway. The property owners expressed vehement opposition to selling to the schoole district, and its developer Greystar is currently seeking to redevelop the three conjoined parcels, with 632 homes and 20,000 square feet of commercial space. The project is just weeks away from coming before the City Council for approval.
Both the Old Mill and the shopping center sites are within the Los Altos School District's boundaries, which encompass a portion of Mountain View.
Attorney Norm Matteoni, speaking on behalf of Greystar, said the district's announcement is a welcome change, noting that the developer has sought to help the district find another location for a school.
"This is a decision Greystar welcomes," Matteoni said in an email. "It has put in months of effort and discussion to point the district to pursuing an alternate location. It is appreciative of the district’s and city’s willingness to work to this result."
Despite the planned use of eminent domain, Federal Realty appears to be a willing participant in the land deal, which is sometimes referred to as a "friendly condemnation." Rich told Mountain View City Council members at a June 12 meeting that Federal Realty, Greystar and the school district are all "in agreement on the deal." Baier confirmed in the email to the Voice that the district and both property owners are cooperating and are seeking to "finalize negotiations" on a fair price.
"Should this acquisition proceed, we would secure property with a negotiated price and on a shorter timeline, avoiding a formal eminent domain process," Baier said.
Representatives from Federal Realty did not respond to requests for comment by the Voice.
Mountain View Mayor Lenny Siegel said the district's decision has the potential to be a win for all the parties involved, particularly if Federal Realty is involved in the land purchase without hostility. He said the city stands to benefit by allowing the Greystar project to move forward, creating housing near transit, and that converting the Federal Realty site -- including the Kohl's and other commercial properties on the eastern side of the shopping center -- into a school and much-needed park space would be a victory for local residents.
"If the Los Altos School District is able to create a school on the Kohl's site, it will be good for its students," he said. "With the planned park, it will be good for the neighborhood, the (Greystar) property owners will benefit, and it appears that the property owners on the (Federal Realty) site will be satisfied."
The Los Altos School District, which draws nearly a third of its student body from Mountain View, has been on a complicated and expensive quest to buy land for a new school in the San Antonio area of the city for years. The district is seeking quite a bit of help from the city of Mountain View. On top of contributing $23 million in park fees, City Council members agreed to allow the school district to "sell" the unused density allowed on the acquired property -- a process known as the transfer of development rights (TDRs) -- to developers throughout the city.
The complex deal-making between the district and several Mountain View developers is expected to defray a large portion of the costs of buying the land, and would give the San Antonio neighborhood both a local school and open space for neighborhood use.
The school district is now seeking an entirely different piece of land in the San Antonio area, yet remarkably little would change with regards to the nuts-and-bolts aspects of selling density rights. In the letter to city staff, Baier states that the school district plans to sell the exact same amount of development rights, 610,000 square feet, for about $79.3 million, and would not modify any of the agreements its made with developers thus far.
So far, City Council members have given the early green light to two projects made much larger by TDRs, both of which are residential projects in the East Whisman area and are allowed to exceed zoning restrictions using density bonuses purchased from Los Altos School District.
The letter also states that Greystar is working on plans to acquire 2 acres of land directly adjacent to the proposed school site for additional park space, satisfying park land requirements for its residential development across the street and effectively boosting the size of open space alongside the future school site.