District tweaks design to add field space at Del Mar Heights, opposition hopes to save more

The updated design for the new Del Mar Heights School.

The Del Mar Union School District board room was filled on Nov. 21 as opposition remains to the proposed Del Mar Heights School rebuild. “Save our fields we need space,” read one sign held by a young student as others held signs that urged the board to reduce the size of the new school to keep the large field intact.

Over the last month, community members have circulated a petition and have raised awareness through a new group Play Outside Del Mar, including distributing yard signs.

“When I saw the proposed design for our almost 11 acres of ocean-view property I couldn’t sit quietly by and let so much field space and blacktop space be lost to excessive parking and queueing,” said Del Mar resident Katherine Holliday Sohn. “I am not alone in my concerns. There has been overwhelming alarm about the proposed plan throughout the Del Mar community.”

Of the people who spoke in opposition to the plan, everyone said they support the rebuilding of the school but they did not want to sacrifice the field space.

“This field has been a cherished part of this community for generations,” said resident Nicole Pentheroudakis. “Buildings age and become outdated but the field is a timeless treasure. I’m asking you, step up, be the hero and protect it.”

Jon Baker, of Baker Nowicki Design Studio, said they have made adjustments to the plan in the last month—they reduced the size of the classrooms resulting in a square footage savings of 3,000 square feet, shifted the buildings to the east by about 20 feet to increase field space and sightlines, and reduced building heights by four feet from 22 feet at the highest point to 18 feet. Baker said field space increased by nine percent.

“I think that’s a pretty impressive response to the community’s request to consider what else we can do with this plan,” DMUSD President Erica Halpern said, encouraging the architect to continue looking to refine the plan.

Opponents of the Del Mar Heights School rebuild spoke at the Del Mar Union School District's board meeting.
(Karen Billing)

At the meeting the board heard over an hour of public comment, the majority in opposition although there were some who expressed their support, including Del Mar Heights PTA President Jenn Hasselmann. Those in support said Del Mar Heights is a school first and they want to ensure that teachers have the best possible space to educate their kids and to ensure that all students are safe. Parent Tricia Dixon said she values that the plan addresses safety, which is her biggest priority over field space.

“We’re not all going to get exactly what we want from a plan but I think this is pretty much as close as we’re going to get to everybody being happy,” Dixon said.

Del Mar resident Mike Milligan, who serves on the Del Mar Little League board, said he agreed that it was hard to lose two baseball fields (the district has proposed building a new field at Torrey Hills Elementary School) but he still believes there will still be more than enough area for children to run around and play.

“There are so many good things that Baker Nowicki has done for our community and I think it’s just time to just stop this craziness,” Milligan said. “They’re little kids. This is a huge plot of grass with an ocean view, it’s crazy that we’re talking the way we’re talking. We are so lucky to be where we are and live where we are, I think that’s what we need to focus on, we need to stop the madness and build this school.”

The field itself is proposed to be 76,020 square feet with overall campus green space at 110,393 square feet. The numbers presented by the district have changed—as Delehanty said, the overall square footage numbers have been updated as the architects have gotten more specific data from their surveyors.

The public has questioned the accuracy of the district’s numbers. Play Outside Del Mar has measured the field at 57,500 square feet and circulated flyers at the meeting that showed after the rebuild, the proposed field would make it the smallest in the district.

The district has disputed that fact.

“This will be neither the smallest field nor the least green space in the district,” Delehanty said.

At the meeting, Baker provided an overview of the design process, which included seven community meetings. Baker said they relied heavily on community input, starting with no design and landing on a single-story school with modern, California coastal architecture with wood and warm materials that fits into the beach community; a design that solved issues of safety, improving the traffic flow to lessen the impact on community streets, expanding the parking lot to provide about 90 spaces while meeting the school’s educational program needs.

Some questioned the size of the campus which has now been reduced to 63,000 square feet, asking to stay as close as they could to the existing footprint of about 55,000 square feet with portables.

“We knew there would be a significant increase in square footage because there are so many portables with no passing or collaboration space,” Delehanty said of the campus that has 14 portables that are considered past the end of their useful life.

Many public comments questioned the design process—Del Mar resident Kelley Huggett said she attended all of the meetings and said that any time preservation of field space was brought up, it was shut down. “This was not a collaboration, this was a sales process to help the community understand what the architect wanted us to approve, it was very frustrating,” Huggett said.

While there will no longer be room for the baseball diamonds, the school’s proposed field will still be able to accommodate a softball field and a soccer field and room for free play. At the meeting, Baker showed configurations in which multiple soccer fields can be run at once. Other green areas on campus include the kindergarten play area, a grass amphitheater in the center of campus and every classroom will have access to an outdoor learning area.

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 area closest to Boquita include a tot lot, viewpoint seating and an art wall. 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.

Many people questioned the use of a park on that northwest corner, targeting it as a place where the architect could make up some room to leave more for the field. Baker said it did not make sense to use the area for parking or circulation and a classroom building would not fit and would be isolated from the rest of campus.

“A community park wasn’t something on our radar but it came up in the meetings,” Baker said. Some at the meeting said a park could be a benefit, others said the architects could try to save at least one baseball field by using the corner for the school.

“The northwest park is the real oddity of this plan,” said resident Mike Krems. “I hear the architect’s comments about the limitations but I feel like there’s been a school operating on that space for 50 years, I feel like it can be done.. I feel like we just need to push harder to step back and see what we can do that’s different that results in a better plan overall and preserves a little bit more of that contiguous open space.”

During public comment, there were requests to slow down the process, as neighboring Solana Beach School District has done with Solana Vista School, spending two and a half years on the design process. Delehanty said that they are seeing 10 to 12 percent escalation in construction costs and to delay the project a year would mean about a $4 million increase in cost. A delay would also mean spending money on maintenance of the existing portables on the campus.

Board member Gee Wah Mok said he was sympathetic to the desire for contiguous green space but he was not sure how they can get there. As Baker said, they would have to build two stories in order to make more room for the field, however, building two stories was ruled out from the beginning of the design process in order to not impact views and the surrounding neighborhood.

Baker said if that was what the district wanted, they could design two stories but warned it will impact someone around the campus.

“It’s not necessarily a matter that we’re taking away something but we’re building a wonderful school and wonderful new addition to the neighborhood,” Mok said “I think ultimately you’re going to be very happy.”

Opponents argued that there are still alternative design solutions and compromises to be made that will result in a beautiful building while still saving the field.

“Nobody’s going to remember this shiny new object in 50 years…but they will remember in 50 years that this board took away those fields,” said resident John Gartman. “Don’t do that to us,”

Board member Doug Rafner said he appreciated the adjustments that have been made and he believes Baker Nowicki has created a beautiful plan but he also appreciated what the community members were saying and was glad the architect was there to listen as well. He said while they might never please everybody, they should continue trying to find the best resolution that takes into consideration as much as they can from the community.

“Don’t stop tweaking,” Rafner said to Baker. “And if you can tweak, tweak green.”