Menlo Park: Critics knock plans for new high school


Big players are weighing in against plans by the Sequoia Union High School District to build a high school in the M-2 light industrial zone in Menlo Park east of U.S. 101. The critics include the city of Menlo Park, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and developer David Bohannon.

Among the complaints: a draft environmental impact report on the project was inadequate in analyzing the high school's impact on morning and afternoon traffic; the site was poorly chosen, given the difficulty in establishing safe routes to school in a commercial area bordered by heavily traveled arterial roads; and the district did not meet state standards in its proposals to mitigate these and other impacts.

On top of that, a map prepared by the Menlo Park Fire Protection District shows the site at 150 Jefferson Drive to be all but surrounded by companies with permits to use hazardous materials. Joining the fire district in criticizing the draft report was Exponent Inc., a failure-analysis and research firm located adjacent to the school site.

Asked to comment on the criticism, district Superintendent Jim Lianides replied via email: "We will be developing our responses, which will include a number of additional mitigation measures, and these will be incorporated into the final EIR that will be presented to the Board of Trustees."

The site "was the best available site in terms of size and southern location," Mr. Lianides continued. "The fact is that there is very little land available in our area. Given the school's technology focus, the location will also best facilitate linked learning relationships with surrounding high tech businesses."

'Safe for school use'

The Sequoia district's chief facilities officer, Matthew Zito, noted that the California Department of Toxic Substances Control approved the site as "safe for school use" following an environmental assessment.

The school district has also conducted a geo-technical evaluation of the site and a study of hazards, including gas pipelines and proximity to high-voltage power lines and airports, Mr. Zito said. The soil has been studied for corrosive qualities and as a safeguard, the school district will install a vapor barrier system beneath the building, he said.

Asked to comment on the school district's actions, Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park fire district noted that the school district has listened to criticisms, commissioned a study that made recommendations, and followed through on those recommendations. "They did not have to do that and we did not require them to do (so)", the chief said.

He also noted that the sites surrounding the school have a history of "safe and sound" practices.

"In reality, we may not be able to stop this (school) from occurring," the chief said in an email, "but I certainly won't endorse it because it's a fundamental life safety issue."

"I believe the school has done a good job at looking and trying to balance the risks, but they're not the First Responders to an emergency and putting any type of child care facility or an educational institution for kids in an area designated for industrial purposes has greater risks, potential consequences and, again, quantities and types of processes can change from time to time."

Enrollment surge

The high school district board decided it needed a small school in Menlo Park after learning in 2013 of a coming multi-year enrollment surge, particularly at Menlo-Atherton High School.

The school board requested and voters approved Measure A in June 2014, allowing the district to borrow up to $265 million from bond markets to address facilities needs. The district is likely to spend about $40 million on the new 400-student school.

Plans for the 44,000-square-foot school include 15 classrooms and five labs, including maker-space and design labs equipped for building prototypes as well as dioramas and posters.

A focus on technology would be in keeping with the school's surroundings. Within blocks are offices of Facebook, Intuit and Oracle and some 15 other high-tech corporations, most involved in health sciences. The proximity of these companies could help students develop mentorships that extend into college, Superintendent Lianides said.

Since the district cannot assign students to the school, an interesting and unique curriculum is probably vital to attracting students, particularly students assigned to M-A, an academic powerhouse that offers more electives than any small school could match.

Students, not adults

Companies that use hazardous materials can get permits from the fire protection district when their operations exceed emission thresholds defined by the state, Fire Marshal Jon Johnston told the Almanac. The fire district inspects the facilities annually, he said, adding that the map included in the fire district's comments was about a week old.

With a school in the vicinity, delivery of hazardous materials acquires added risk, Chief Schapelhouman said, in that trucks use the same roads that students use to walk, bike or drive, "increasing the chances of emergency incidents that (were) not there before," he said.

Some emergencies require a building's occupants to shelter in place, an order that becomes more complicated when the building is a school, the chief said. "Students ... are not adults, do not have experience with decision making during emergencies, have tendencies to not listen and are not aware of what consequences could occur due to their actions or inaction," he said.

In its comments, Exponent Inc. asserts that a school next door would have a "detrimental impact" on the company's engineering and scientific-testing business. The draft environmental impact report says the school district investigated and concluded that Exponent "(does not) use significant quantities of hazardous material and pose(s) a low risk to the future occupants of the school."

Traffic impacts

The city of Menlo Park also complained about the location. A letter from City Manager Alex McIntyre's office asserted that the site conflicts with state standards requiring a school to be located "within the proposed attendance area to encourage student walking and avoid extensive busing unless busing is used to promote ethnic diversity."

The city takes issue with Sequoia district statements that the school site is 0.2 miles from the Suburban Park-Lorelei Manor-Flood Triangle neighborhoods, and 0.4 miles from Belle Haven.

The city contends that, when using roads and streets, the distances are 2.4 miles to Suburban Park, 1.5 miles to Lorelei Manor, 2 miles to Flood Triangle and 1.2 miles to Belle Haven. And getting to school on these streets, some without sidewalks, would necessitate crossing Bayfront Expressway and/or Marsh Road at U.S. 101, the city says.

The district acknowledges such problems. The school would add vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians to roads that "generally lack continuous pedestrian and bicycle facilities in the vicinity of the school," according to the draft report. The situation could cause or contribute to dangerous interactions between and among these travelers, possibly resulting in "injuries, accidents and near-misses," the report says.

To address such risks the district proposes a map, republished yearly and widely distributed, identifying "facilities such as traffic lights, crosswalks, and demarcated bikeways that promote safe routes to school."

The district would also propose that SamTrans, the public bus service, establish local services for the 2021-22 school year.

There is no evidence that a map would effectively address the safe-routes issues, said Attorney Frank R. Petrilli, representing Bohannon Development Company, in extensive comments on the draft report. He also knocked the school district for not fully accounting for morning and afternoon peak traffic impacts, and for not offering to share costs with the city of Menlo Park to mitigate such impacts.

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