Atherton gives Menlo School go-ahead on expansion plans


Menlo School has apparently calmed the objections of its neighbors over plans to expand several buildings in its central campus, and on Wednesday night, Aug. 26, won unanimous approval from the Atherton Planning Commission to go ahead with the project.

The only dissenting vote came from commission member Mary Widmer, who voted against giving the school a variance to exceed the 34-foot height limit in its zoning district by 8 feet.

Architect Kevin Hart said representatives of Menlo School, located at 50 Valparaiso Ave., had originally asked the town a year ago to approve building a two-story building where a one-story building is now proposed.

The representatives were asked to work with neighbors and come back with a revised plan.

What they came up with, he said, is "a new heart of campus, as far away from any of our neighbors as possible." Most of the new buildings will not be visible from anywhere but the center of campus, he said. Only one neighbor will be able to see the project and that neighbor "can only see a slight corner as they look through their bushes," he said.

The school was given the variance despite a recommendation from town planners to deny it for fear of setting a negative precedent. Several neighbors spoke in favor of the variance.

"I've actually come to be positive about this project for the most part," said immediate neighbor Ed Goodstein. "I think that the school has done a good job of reaching out and trying to have a meeting of minds about this. Most of our concerns are alleviated."

Granting the variance "would certainly help the neighbors," he said, because it allows building in the center of campus, rather than the earlier proposed "building outside our back door."

Neighbor Liz King agreed. "I want to endorse all aspects of this plan," she said. "They've been amenable and thoughtful to the concerns of the neighbors."

Than Healy, the head of school for the private middle and high school, said the construction of the proposed projects will "virtually complete" the school's plans to update the campus. Mr. Healy said the school will return by early next year, with plans for changes in the Cartan Field athletic facilities it shares with Menlo College. He said a meeting with neighbors about the Cartan Field plans is scheduled for October.

Menlo School was given a conditional use permit for three additions to two existing buildings. A new dining hall, student center and library addition of 7,600 square feet, would connect to Stent Hall. A 5,400-square-foot one-story structure with a basement would be added to the Creative Arts & Design Center and used for a technology and business office. Business, development and communication offices, totaling 4,500 square feet, would be added to the third floor of the 1998 addition to Stent Hall.

The school plans to use 10 portable buildings during construction, putting them on the oval lawn area of the main entry loop, where it put portables during construction in 2004.

Among the conditions imposed on the construction by the town are noise controls that would keep the noisiest construction activities between 8 and 10 a.m. or 3 to 5 p.m.; offsite mixing of concrete and placing wooden barriers around any jackhammers used.

Conditions imposed by the neighbors include not allowing noise from mechanical equipment to be heard from neighboring properties; adding landscape screening in front of the creative arts building and storing food waste on a site away from the neighbors.

Conditions to protect the history of Douglass Hall include requiring a website with the building's history and historic photos historic exhibits inside the building.

Civic center master plan

In other business, the Atherton Planning Commission unanimously recommended the City Council approve the final environmental impact report on the town's Civic Center Master Plan. The town is currently designing a new civic center, and those plans will need further environmental review only on aspects that differ from the master plan. The environmental report will now go to the City Council for final approval.

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