‘Save our fields’: Residents continue to voice concerns over Heights rebuild

The Del Mar Heights School field.
(Karen Billing)

Some community opposition remains to the Del Mar Heights School rebuild that is set to begin construction in summer 2020. The group Play Outside Del Mar has distributed hundreds of “Save our Fields” signs that can be spotted on many Del Mar neighborhood streets and community members again filled the board room at the Del Mar Union School District board’s Dec. 18 meeting in an attempt to preserve what neighbor Andrew Lutz called “the most beautiful public school site in the world.”

“I consider the school to be a real jewel of our community,” said Karen Vaughn, who has lived on the corner of Boquita Drive and Cordero Road for almost 30 years. Both of her children went to the Heights and “Katie” (board member Katherine Fitzpatrick) used to babysit them. “I like the design but I’m very grieved by the loss of field space. I don’t feel that due diligence has been done. I know that there are a lot of issues that planners have had to take into account but I don’t think we’re at our best design at this point. I think we’re giving up too much.”

The current design is driven by the priorities of reducing vehicle congestion on neighborhood streets, maximizing parking, getting rid of all aging portable classrooms and improving pedestrian safety while still preserving views. The 66,990- square-foot design is larger than the existing footprint of the 54,007 square feet campus and while other green areas have been worked into the design, it does result in a reduction in the large contiguous school playing field.

The board asked Baker Nowicki Architects to consider several options in an effort to increase field space such as moving the buildings as far as they could to the east and building a 22-foot-high retaining wall, reducing the parking and going to two-stories. According to Chris Delehanty, director of capital programs, the retaining wall would cost an additional $950,000 and all options would require additional community input and delay the project for about a year with escalation costs of about $2.1 million.

Architect Jon Baker said that building two stories would get a substantial amount of field back but it would cost additional money, impact views and the school would be limited from an instructional standpoint—they would lose the indoor/outdoor component and instructional flexibility and per California Building Code, kindergarten through second-grade students can’t occupy a second floor.

Overall the board did not support further exploring a two-story option.

“The community was adamant early-on in the process about not having two-stories,” said board member Scott Wooden.

Wooden said he was worried about a delay and the impact that construction cost escalation would have on other Measure MM projects, such as Carmel Del Mar’s modernization.

Recently neighboring Solana Beach School District stretched its public input process for the Solana Vista School rebuild and faced a $5.7 million budget shortfall due to construction escalation. The board had to value engineer items out of the school design and shored up its Measure JJ bond funding with community facilities district fees and builder impact fees to ensure it would be able to complete its building program for all its schools.

Newly-appointed Clerk Gee Wah Mok said he understands that the community wants as big a field as possible but he hasn’t heard a solution that is feasible.

“I don’t like the retaining wall,” Mok said. “I think it’s dangerous, unsightly and I don’t think it adds that much field space.”

Wooden agreed that in addition to being costly, the 22-foot retaining wall was ugly and had an industrial look that the community said they wanted to avoid. Board member Doug Rafner said he was not as opposed to the look of the retaining wall but was concerned with the additional $2 million cost.

In the current design, parking spaces at the Heights nearly double from the existing 48 spaces to 80 spaces. The new lot will have queuing space for 45 cars over the 15 that can fit on campus now during pick-up and drop-off. One proposal the board considered decreased the lot to 51 parking spaces, utilizing the northwest corner. Rafner noted that the tweak would increase the green space quite a bit.

Wooden said that design was looked at “very seriously” during the design process and there were many safety concerns about mixing student pedestrians with traffic circulation. Additionally, as many board members pointed out, the smaller lot does not provide enough parking for staff, not to mention visitors.

Rafner countered that they might never have enough parking spaces and said there could be options to help with safety concerns like the crossing guards that are used at Skyline School in Solana Beach.

Rafner said the mediator in him was just trying to find some kind of compromise to get that green space bigger.

“That’s a big field there’s no doubt about it,” Rafner said. “The snowball has rolled down the hill somewhat before all this came to light and that creates the problem. Every dollar that we spend over budget on this project, we’re taking away from a project somewhere else in the district.”

“I grew up with that song ‘pave paradise and put up a parking lot’ and I hear that throughout everybody’s comments,” Rafner continued. “But we are focusing on the students. Jim Peabody, our former superintendent, said ‘If you keep your eyes on the students, you’re never going to go wrong’ and I think in our district our focus on education and the best things for kids has always been right there.”

During public comment, community members said they were skeptical of the effort to make changes, pointing out how the presentation showed only drawbacks for each option and none of the benefits and used unfavorable renderings such as a two-story school towering over Mira Montana and obstructing the entire ocean view.

“I’m not buying it and I hope you guys aren’t either,” resident Rolf Silbert told the board.

Resident Tom Sohn said he was confused by the district’s “rigid commitment” to the original design despite the public comments that were being heard.

“What I would’ve hoped for from the last couple months of community input was collaborative changes to the design but instead all we heard today is just a bunch of defenses to the existing design. Some of the defenses are borderline ridiculous,” Sohn said. “The need to pull every car off the street is somewhat silly…I would beg the board to be directive to the district. They’re not listening to us, they have to listen to you. Please increase the field size.”

Resident Nicole Pentheroudakis said she was frustrated because she doesn’t feel like the community is being heard. In terms of community outreach she said there were meetings for two months in the spring and then there were months off and when the district came back in September it was like “a stone wall” whenever people brought up preserving the field.

“I don’t understand why it’s not more important to you,” Pentheroudakis said. “What makes this campus magical is that field and we are going to be losing it in June if this isn’t changed.”

Greg Heinzinger, who lives down the street from the school, said he took a different view of the process.

“I participated in a lot of the meetings and I felt that the re-design process was thorough, didn’t feel rushed, was open, inclusive and transparent. I think the outcome did reflect the views of the community that participated,” Heinzinger said.

Heinzinger said that Heights is a challenging site—it was a school built for half the number of students they have today with no ADA, special education or security requirements. All of those things that require increased space and the architects did that while still respecting community views.

Superintendent Holly McClurg said the district has listened and made refinements and adjustments to the design due to public input, including reducing square footage by 3,000 square feet and moving buildings 20 feet to the east.

“The school we’re designing here is the school we see as the model for all schools in the district,” McClurg said of the campus that provides interconnectivity between indoors and outdoors and moves away from the traditional classroom by providing access for students to all different kinds of spaces to learn, explore, collaborate or be self-reflective. She said that the design reflects ideas presented by students in the spring’s School of the Future design challenge.

“I’m really excited about the progress we’ve made in our design so far, I love the fact that our kids’ voices are in there,” McClurg said. “I love the fact that when I look at our design, what I picture is our kids in it. I can see where our kids and teachers are excited about it.”

During public comment, Heights parent Tricia Dixon said in her opinion, green space is not the priority and urged the board not to waste millions of dollars by postponing the rebuild for a year, particularly given the “deteriorating” conditions that students are currently facing.

“The current school is a dump…it does not meet the standards we should have for a public school in our community,” Dixon said. “Compromises and refinements have been made. We need to get kids out of the rat motel where they are currently being educated and we need to move forward.”

Play Outside group questions district’s numbers

At the meeting, Baker addressed concerns that the district’s numbers have changed over time. In September the proposed field size was presented as 79,221 square feet and the total green space as 142,919 square feet. After an October survey, the green space numbers were refined and presented as 110,393 square feet of total green space and the proposed field size as 76,020 square feet.
Play Outside Del Mar challenged the district’s numbers, stating the playing field size of 59,000 square feet.

Baker said that they design schools from the inside out and it’s an iterative process. They started with assumptions, working with “partially reliable” information before surveyors provide the actual numbers based on topography, slopes, boundaries and easements. Per an October survey, the total decentralized green space includes a 76,020-square-foot field and a 17,486-square-foot community park in the northwest corner.

“These square footages are pretty accurate at this point,” Baker said.

John Gartman, the founder of Play Outside Del Mar, continues to doubt the district’s numbers—he believes the district’s calculations for the playing field include the school garden, tree trunks, the decomposed granite trail and bioswales for stormwater drainage. Gartman, a former engineer, said he has taken great efforts to ensure that his math is accurate: he uses polygon math with Google Earth images, laser measurement tools and the field marker roller he uses as a soccer coach. “I’ve gotten into the mud,” he says. His measurement puts the field in the proposed design at about 59,000 square feet right, a reduction from the 160,000 square feet he measures the playing fields at the Heights currently.

“I just want the district to say what’s real and what’s not,” he said. “Even by their own numbers, it’s a catastrophic loss of fields.”

The district has said that refinements have resulted in an increase in field space but as community members remain unsure, resident Becky Deller said that the district should consider putting up story poles, “for the sake of having a good relationship with the community.”

The district has said they are not required to put up story poles.

Gartman also questioned the board about the school rendering that appeared on the cover of the Del Mar Times and he says has been posted on the door of every classroom at Del Mar Heights. Gartman said that the rendering appears to have been stretched, showing a field that is 11 percent larger and 19 percent longer. When the size of the field is what the community is most talking about, he believes the representation should be accurate, “It’s not real…it shows about 25,000 square feet of space that doesn’t exist.”

Rafner heard Gartman’s concerns and asked the architect about the rendering as he did not want the district using something that was “misleading.”

“I can assure you that the rendering is accurate,” Baker said. “The accuracy of the field is precise. We rotated the view so it was easier to see the fields…it’s just a different perspective.”

Baker said that they cannot build on the northwest corner of campus closest to Boquita, currently home to the kindergarten classrooms, due to access and circulation, site security and campus functionality. The corner is being left open as a community park outside of the school gate so it will be accessible during the day. Potential uses include a tot lot, viewpoint seating and an art wall.

Resident Wes Huggett said he had another architect look at using the northwest corner for a two-story classroom build, enabling the school to keep most of the green space. At the meeting, he held up the alternate architect’s rendering and said most of the neighbors he spoke with would be OK with a two-story option more toward the northwest corner.

“The community does not want this,” said Huggett of the current design. “We’re just going too fast and that’s why you have so many unhappy people. We need to take our time and get the right project…I think you know deep in your heart that you don’t have the right solution here.”

After nearly three hours of board discussion and public input, Superintendent McClurg said the district will continue to look at the field space, outdoor space and recreation areas.

“We want it to be as good as it can be, as large as it can be. I know our architects will work with us,” McClurg said. “We will continue to make that a priority.”