Neighbors lament losing green space with Del Mar Heights rebuild

The view of the Del Mar Heights field from Mira Montana during a recent Sage Canyon School campout.
(Wes Huggett)

On regular school days, children are scattered across the wide, ocean-view field at Del Mar Heights Elementary School, playing on the grass and on the skinned infield of the baseball diamond. On the weekends it is in use by sports leagues and by neighbors for casual recreation—the scenic spot even played host to Sage Canyon School’s recent campout, tents clustered on the field edging the sandstone bluffs of the Torrey Pines State Natural Preserve.

Wes and Kelley Huggett, who live on Mira Montana overlooking the fields, were saddened to discover that the rebuild of Del Mar Heights School plans to take away the open green space and carve into the ocean and canyon views that they have watched so many people stop to admire while walking down their street. The Huggetts said they are not against the new school but don’t believe it has to come with the price of losing the field.

“This is the heart of the Del Mar Heights community right here and they’re ripping it out,” said Kelley Huggett.

Chris Delehanty, Del Mar Union School District’s executive director of capital programs, said throughout the design process for the new school, the district has listened to community ideas, concerns and priorities.

“We have really focused on improving the traffic and keeping the school single story,” Delehanty said at a Sept. 23 design meeting, the second held this fall. “By keeping it single story, it did push things around a little bit. When we look at the actual design, the ability to have flexible learning environments that we know are best for kids, we are really excited about this opportunity to make this the best school for our kids.”

In architect Baker Nowicki Design Studio’s design for a 69,000 square feet campus, the one-story buildings have flat, low-sloped roofs to preserve neighborhood views and a new parking lot offers a long queue for pick-up and drop-off and 90 to 95 spaces to keep school traffic causing gridlock on Boquita and surrounding streets. There are 46 spaces currently in the school’s lot.

The 13 portable buildings on the existing campus will be replaced by villages of modern learning studios, connected by a boardwalk. The larger multi-use room will become a more functional space in the new campus with collaboration space for the learning labs and expansive windows that open up to ocean views. There will also be a new innovation center (library), covered lunch area and blacktop playgrounds.

“It’s never an easy process trying to balance all of the community’s needs and at the same time be responsive to the educational needs of the school,” said John Baker of Baker Nowicki. “We’ve worked really hard to find as much of a sweet spot as we can.”

The parking lot and new school buildings now stretch along the length of the property below Mira Montana and into the field, outside of the existing school’s footprint.

For perspective, the backstop at the baseball diamond is 23-and-a-half-feet, the new buildings on the southern edge of the property will have a height of 22 feet, which the Huggetts say will almost entirely eliminate the ocean view from the Mira Montana sidewalk. The new MUR, located where portable classroom buildings are now, is 27 feet tall—Wes Huggett said that building also chops into ocean views from second story of Mira Montana homes.

Community design meetings have been held on the rebuild since April, however, some neighbors said they were not notified. Neighbor Amy Hellencamp, who lives on the corner of Mercado and Cordero, said by the time she found out about it this fall, she felt the design was already a “done deal.”

A comparison of the existing green space and what is proposed.
(Courtesy DMUSD)

“It’s shocking and completely unnecessary,” said Mira Montana resident Shana Khoury, questioning the campus’ size for just 450 kids. “It’s like One Paseo, it’s not Del Mar. It’s urbanizing us. We’re Walmart-ing our entire neighborhood.”

Hellencamp said she does not have a view but her home on Mercado and Cordero sits at the heart of school day traffic. Hellencamp said she cannot get in and out of her driveway during pick up and drop-off and occasionally parents even congregate on her lawn, yet she said she would accept that if it meant that the Heights could keep its field, “You live with that, you don’t destroy a school,” Hellencamp said. “They’re taking away what was special about this school.”

Jamie and Chris Donnelly, who also live on Cordero and Mercado, said they do not believe the new configuration will improve traffic.

“Twice a day for 25 minutes I can’t get into my house,” said Jamie Donnelly. “To take play space away for more parents to be able to park there during the school year, what a waste. In the summer and weekends no one is in the parking lot.”

Baker said while some people think green space only counts if it is in one big open area, the new campus has close to the same amount of green space although it is “decentralized” and programmed differently.

The main green may be half as much, he said, but it will still accommodate two softball fields, a soccer field and room for free play. There will no longer be room for Del Mar Little League, which played on the ocean view diamond for 70 years. A new field for the little league will be built at Torrey Hills Elementary School.

Other green areas include the kindergarten play area, a grass amphitheater in the center of campus, and an open green space in the northwest portion of the campus. Potential uses for the park-like area closest to Boquita include a tot lot, viewpoint seating and an art wall.

Factoring in all of those areas, the new school will have 142,919 square feet of green space compared to the existing 149,728 square feet.

Khoury said the number is “deceptive” as it includes areas such as the linear green space along the parking lot that will not be used by children. As one solution, Wes proposed using the northwest corner for school purposes and adding some green space back to the open field where it might be more utilized.

A rendering for the entry of the new Heights school.

“It just seems nuts to take away such a drastic amount of wide-open recreational field space from kids and future generations,” said Wes. “This is as much of an asset to children as buildings, parking and entryways.”

The Huggetts have asked for assurances about the view impact and requested that the district put up story poles to show building heights. Delehanty said the story poles are not required by California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review and the district does not plan to install them.

Delehanty said they have chosen not to use the northwest portion to build on as it would not work programmatically. He said moving the administration or other classroom buildings to that area would not make the impacts to the rest of the campus that people hope it would.

At the Oct. 23 board meeting, the board expects to select a contractor for the project. CEQA, Coastal Commission and Department of State Architect review of the project is expected to be completed by early 2020 with a public comment period on the environmental impact report before the school board approves the design. The district aims to break ground in summer 2020 on the one-year construction project.

At the Sept. 23 design meeting residents on Boquita, parents and teachers shared favorable reviews of the campus design.

“I’m excited that future generations will get to enjoy this learning space. I only wish every child around the world had something this beautiful,” said one parent. “I’m not trying to minimize anyone’s concerns about height. But this is a space for students first and foremost. We can’t have everything. We can’t have two stories, that means we have to spread out.”

Heights PE teacher Ian Phillips said while it is a smaller field than he expected, it is enough to teach PE.

Phillips said if he lived on the street above and saw how much was being taken away he might be concerned but he has also had to run down the street to avoid being late for work because he could not find parking and he has also run down the street with fellow teachers to block traffic to allow emergency vehicles to be able to access the school after a horrible accident. In 2016, nine children and an adult were hit by a car and injured during school pick-up; the most serious injury was a 5-year-old with a broken thighbone.

The Del Mar Heights field in use by football and baseball teams on a weekday afternoon.
(Wes Huggett)

“I know the parking lot looks big and it’s pushing the school further away. But I don’t have a place to park and if that fire truck doesn’t have a path to get in, then all of those students are in danger,” Phillips said. “I think this is a reasonable solution to make the school traffic flow from day to day.”

A determined Kelley Huggett is convinced that the community can come up with creative transportation solutions to get cars off the road if it meant preserving the green space. Her children have graduated from Heights but she has offered to help organize carpools, has researched school bus companies, encouraged more Walk to School Days and even pitched herself as an Uber for students: “My car seats seven,” she said.

“I believe as a community, we can come up with a solution rather than paving paradise,” Kelley said. “We are losing a lot for a need that the community doesn’t see as important as having green space year-round.”