District moves ahead with new Del Mar Heights School design

DMUSD's green space comparison for the new Del Mar Heights School.
(Billing, Karen)

The Del Mar Union School District remains excited about the new Del Mar Heights School, moving the rebuild process forward by selecting a contractor at the Oct. 23 board meeting. While Balfour Beatty Construction was tapped to lead the project that is set to begin next summer, some concerns remain about the school’s design—a change.org petition called “Save the Del Mar Heights Field” is circulating gathering signatures in opposition and as a way to raise awareness about what is being planned.

Del Mar’s Nicole Pentheroudakis, who started the petition, came before the board asking them to pause and reconsider their plan for the new school which cuts into the school’s “iconic” large playing field.

“Open recreational space is scarce in our community and we can never replace that,” Pentheroudakis said. “The proposed design rips out the green heart of our community and breaks it into little pieces.”

At the meeting, DMUSD President Erica Halpern said that feedback from staff is “universally positive” and they have heard from many community members who are happy about the design—she said the Del Mar Heights PTA president and board members also strongly support the plan.

“It saddens me that some in the community have been led to believe that we are losing the field at Del Mar Heights,” Halpern said in a prepared statement. “That is definitely not the case. This plan includes a large field that teachers have told us is exactly what our kids need. Overall there’s less than a five percent decrease in field space and actually an increase in the amount of green space that kids can actually use.

“There seems to be a suggestion that the district should abandon this plan that the community created. I feel confident that the ideas mentioned here today have already been brought up, debated, vetted and addressed during the many hours of community meetings.”

While some community members maintain that they were not aware or involved in the process for the school, the district believes they had “very robust community engagement” with architect Baker Nowicki that helped drive the design for the new school.

“The school was designed by the community, staff and architect which is why there is so much excitement around this project,” said Superintendent Holly McClurg.

At the meeting, Executive Director of Capital Programs Chris Delehanty went over the process for how the design evolved over seven meetings that started in the spring with about 200 unique community and staff members in attendance.

“We started with no design at all,” Delehanty said.

Delehanty said the input they received helped shape the design—traffic and parking was the number one priority, as was maintaining views for surrounding neighbors and keeping the buildings one-story to prevent a “mega school.” Due to the desire to stay at one-story to preserve views, a two-story option was never explored, although it would have been a way to shift the campus to leave more field space.

“Teachers, parents and community members sat side by side to grapple with the many complicated aspects of designing a school. It was inspiring to see participants debate the merits of different ideas, challenge each other and come up with better solutions than the ones we started out with,” said Halpern, who attended all five meetings in the spring. “I saw that the meetings were heavily attended and represented all the constituent groups. I saw the design evolve and go through many iterations in an attempt to meet the interests of the community at the same time keeping the focus on the people we are here for: the children.”

Some residents in the area said they did not receive the notifications about the meetings, they don’t check the district website regularly and without students at the school, did not receive the school newsletter the Dolphin Digest. The Del Mar Times did run articles with the meeting dates and times.

“I have been to the meetings and they don’t mean a thing,” said resident Irene Young during public comment. “They’re continuing what they wanted to do. I’m hoping that you can be more democratic and listen to the public when they tell you hundreds are against this plan.”

Pentheroudakis said the district has a “very narrow vision” of what the community is. She said 200 people may have attended the meetings but many were teachers and the greater community had no idea—she said there should have been billboards outside of the school advertising the meetings.

“There are a lot of people in this community that are not happy with this. It’s a beautiful school, nobody is saying it’s not a beautiful school…but we’re spending $55 million on a school that this community is not going to be happy with,” Pentheroudakis said. “People want that field, the community needs that field, our children desperately need that field. I know it’s not a community park, it’s a school but it’s all we have.”

Young argued while other parts of the city are looking for more green options like transit to curb driving, here they are taking out school grounds to make room for cars, “That is a sinful thing to do.”

“That field is part of the heart of Del Mar Heights and as we look at losing that, that is a huge loss to our community,” said Del Mar resident Kelley Huggett.

Maintaining the green space was listed a community priority at the design meetings and while the large field may be half as much, the school will still be able to accommodate a softball field and a soccer field (although practices and games can not be held concurrently as they are now) and room for free play. Other green areas include the kindergarten play area, a grass amphitheater in the center of campus and every classroom will have access to an outdoor learning area which McClurg said is a big difference from the school’s current 13 portables that provide no access or integration—“the learning experiences will be so much better than they could be on a campus that has 13 portables,” she said.

An open green space will be left in the northwest portion of campus, outside of the school gate so it will be accessible during the day. Potential uses for the park-like area closest to Boquita include a tot lot, viewpoint seating and an art wall.

Delehanty said a decomposed granite walking path will start at the park area and go around the field, accessing the canyon rim in a way that people could not before because the kindergarten play area and portables were there. The path will be about a quarter-mile round-trip and open during non-school hours.

Delehanty said as much as the children play on the green space, they do also play on the black top and they will be enhancing the play structures to encourage more natural play like climbing and sliding.

With the smaller field, there will no longer be room for Del Mar Little League, which played on the ocean- view diamond for 70 years. Little league expressed concerns about the loss of the playing field and over the summer the district worked to look at options to meet the community’s needs—a new little league field will be built at Torrey Hills School this summer or next.

Gina Vargus, a Del Mar Heights kindergarten teacher who participated in the process, reiterated that there was no pre-plan and in her opinion, the community did come together to form the design.

“By cutting back some of that field space and giving us a beautiful new learning space, we’re not taking anything away from the kids during their school days,” Vargus said. “There may be some community members who might not have as much room for their dogs to run and they won’t have as much room for practices and to me that’s not our primary concern. Our concern is educating our kids.”

Vargus said she knows that it’s impossible to make everyone happy and while the plan may not be perfect it will be “perfectly wonderful” for the students.

“They deserve to have a great school and there is a great field out there that’s still there for them. There’s still plenty of room for them to play,” she said.

Pentheroudakis said she agrees that Heights students deserve an “exceptional educational environment” but it should not come at the cost of the field.

“Upgrading buildings with collaborative spaces and more light is vital but the field is just as essential to the children’s academic, social and physical growth,” she said. “And it is just as essential to our community.”