We can't imagine what Atherton's City Council members were thinking when the they authorized the suit, which seeks to force the district to conduct an environmental impact study for its new, $26 million performing arts center at the school, located just inside the Atherton border. Concerns cited in the suit include rainwater runoff, traffic congestion and increased police calls.
The new center will be a tremendous asset to Atherton, Menlo Park and other nearby communities. With 350 to 500 seats, it is not the Hollywood Bowl, but it will be designed by the same architects and will accommodate performances produced by the school in a stunning auditorium considerably larger and more beautiful than any in the surrounding area. Menlo Park is to contribute $2.6 million to the project in return for the right to use the theater for events that need performance space, such as theater classes and productions, concerts, recitals and children's shows.
One of the town's concerns, about increased water runoff caused by the theater during heavy rains, is a non-starter since the intersection at Ravenswood Avenue and Middlefield Road has suffered from poor drainage for years, despite Atherton's best efforts to correct the problem.
A key Atherton demand is that Menlo Park seek a permit to change its pre-planned calendar of events at the theater, or to deviate from the pattern of use after the first year. Atherton claims its ordinance governing non-school uses of school facilities applies here, but state law seems to overrule it by requiring school boards — not towns — to oversee the use of school facilities by the community.
Atherton wants a gesture of respect, but it's got a funny way of asking for it. Atherton officials have known about the performing arts center plans for months, and according to school district officials, have attended five or six meetings in an effort to resolve the issues. The town did not get what it wanted and chose to sue the district to gain leverage over use of a theater for which they paid nothing and that is entirely controlled by the school district.
School district officials have made good faith efforts to work with Atherton on its concerns, including sharing the cost of a traffic impact study. A solution for rainwater runoff is also in the works.
As for the environmental impact report, the district seems on solid ground. School districts are permitted to skip environmental analysis unless certain criteria are exceeded, which is not the case with M-A's performing arts center.
It is a shame that the Atherton council allowed this NIMBY lawsuit to proceed. The town would have achieved much more by welcoming the theater, and working with the school district to resolve any impact problems.