Torrey Pines committee reviews Heights School rebuild

Students on the Del Mar Heights field during a jogathon held earlier this year.

Students on the Del Mar Heights field during a jogathon held earlier this year.
(Karen Billing)

The Torrey Pines Planning Board’s project review committee held a special meeting on Aug. 11 reviewing the Del Mar Heights School rebuild and its pending coastal development permit application with the city.

The Del Mar Union School District was ready to start demolition of the old campus in July, however, they were told that they would first require a coastal development permit from the city. As the project sits in the Torrey Pines Community Plan area, the planning board is reviewing the project somewhat at the “11th hour.”

“We’re reviewing this as a community resource not just as parents of students. This is a public facility, this is one of the major projects that we’re ever going to see in the Torrey Pines planning area and, unfortunately, we were left out of the loop on this until late in the game, I don’t know why,” said review committee member Daniel Jensvold. “The big issues we need to look at are how this effects our community and how views and use of the field are maintained with the new development there.”

The committee heard public comment from a lot of people in complete support of the rebuild as well as some concerns about safety, particularly around wildfire risk. The project review committee will now forward its summary of the issues to the planning board, which has yet to schedule a meeting to review the project.

The planning board is advisory to the city—the rebuild is expected to go before the city hearing officer in early September for review. If the coastal development permit is issued at that time, the district would be able to begin demolition in September and construction in October or November. The permit is a staff-level decision which may be appealed to the San Diego Planning Commission.

Review committee member Adam Gevanthor said the planning board’s role is to ensure the development upholds the policies of their community plan. Key policies include preserving and enhancing the adjacent Torrey Pines State Park Reserve Extension and making sure that development does not negatively impact residential neighborhoods.

The community plan also addresses the need for usable parks and active playing fields—currently the area is underserved and short 15.3 acres of usable park land.

“We don’t have a park in our neighborhood but we’ve been fortunate to have two schools and the district has been generous enough to let us use those fields,” Gevanthor said, noting that the district has no obligation from the city to provide the community with active space. “It should be noted that Del Mar Heights Elementary School makes up about 50% of our current active recreational area.”

In his presentation, Del Mar Union School District Executive Director of Capital Programs Chris Delehanty said the school was designed with the reserve in mind. View corridors from Mira Montana and Boquita Drive open to the ocean, the buildings were kept one story with low roofs and they have incorporated setbacks, bioswale systems and fixing failing drainage outfalls to minimize impacts on the reserve. Landscaping materials specifically exclude and protect against invasive plant species.

“There’s almost nothing in your policies that this plan is in violation of. We’ve made every effort to respond appropriately,” architect John Baker said.

Baker said while there is a loss of field space, the grass area as designed is still the largest park area in the community with over two acres of multi-use grass field. Open space has been reconfigured throughout the campus and there is an additional park that will be open to the community during school hours and an ADA accessible walking path along the canyon rim.

The review committee had a similar idea to what has already been included in the district’s plan for a walking path around the school, however, they envisioned placing the field and trail outside of the school fence to create a more natural-feeling out to the preserve and providing linkages to the greater trail network in the community.

As Jensvold said, the site is a “priceless” piece of land and he questioned the design of building the school one story over the whole site. While understanding that the district was far along in the design process, the committee proposed their idea to build two stories and terrace the building to provide parking underneath which could result in larger open space and a smaller overall footprint.

Baker said they could have saved a lot of land by building a multi-story school but they were trying to balance the needs of the broader community, who wished not to have ocean views and breezes blocked by tall buildings. The increased parking lot and queuing area was designed to help alleviate traffic build-up in the community.

“We opted, with a lot of community support, to keep the buildings low, to keep them one story,” Baker said. “Yes, when you have expensive land you build up. That’s what happens downtown, in Carmel Valley and Sorrento Valley. But on this site, for every one neighbor that was happy there would be another one that would be very unhappy.”

The wildfire risk is an issue that the committee said will need to be addressed by the planning board.

Delehanty said the new plan greatly enhances the fire safety of the school. There is currently only one fire hydrant on site and the new plan will add four. Currently the closest classroom building is five feet from the canyon edge and in the new school, the closest building will be 25 feet from the canyon edge. The temporary portables that are on campus now have no sprinkler systems —all of the new buildings on the campus will be California Building Code compliant with ignition-resistant construction and tempered glass. Delehanty noted that the school’s fire lane is increasing from 10 feet wide to 20 feet wide and the new driveway seeks to reduce congestion to improve emergency vehicle access and evacuation.

During public comment, resident Laura DeMarco stated that due to the project’s location in a high wildfire danger zone, all new school buildings should be sited 100 feet away from the reserve, which is the minimum distance in the fire code for defensible space.

Planning board and committee member Jake Mumma said while everyone seems to be in agreement that the existing campus is in need of a rebuild, the defensible space is a topic he keeps hearing as a potential issue that could be resolved.

“That whole extension area is chaparral …it’s very, very flammable. If it goes up, it goes up very fast and burns very hot,” Mumma said. “It just seems like we have one chance to build a very, very beautiful school, why can’t we do it taking a fire break more into consideration and in the forefront of everyone’s minds?”

While it has been stated that the fire department pre-approved the plan, according to Deputy Chief Doug Perry, the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department only reviewed the school site plan for fire access and water supply.

The district submitted the plan to San Diego Fire-Rescue Department’s new construction group. The group reviewed and approved the plan as it showed an increase in the number of fire hydrants on site and the proposed fire access road around the school met California Fire Code. According to Perry, it is the Division of State Architects’ job to verify that the construction plans meet all state fire and building code requirements, which includes defensible space.