A redevelopment plan to add hundreds of housing units in Foster City is angering local parents concerned about school overcrowding. They say the city’s three elementary schools are already too full, and they question where the children who will certainly move into the new apartments will attend classes.
Foster City, a planned community of about 30,000 people midway between San Francisco and San Jose, touts its quiet suburban streets, plentiful parks and good schools. Now, some residents say the redevelopment plan is threatening that tranquility.
The Pilgrim-Triton plan, as it’s called, would turn a formerly industrial area in the older part of town just south of Highway 92 into a planned community with apartments, commercial space and office space. The plan, named for the intersection at which it sits, calls for the construction of more than 700 apartments in four phases over the next 10 years.
Donna Washburn, a mother of two daughters, has lived in Foster City for decades and worries that adding so many apartments will transform the suburban environment she wants for her children.
“They’re trying to turn it into too much of an urban experience if you put too many people on top of each other like that,” she said.
Property owner Northwestern Insurance Mutual originally called in developer Sares Regis Group of Northern California to help solve a tenant issue more than five years ago. A third-party property manager had allowed incubator technology companies to occupy the space, zoned as a multi-tenant industrial area, beginning during the dot-com boom of the 1990s. That was in violation of city codes.
Faced with the possibility of legal action by the city, Northwestern asked Jeff Birdwell, president of the commercial division of Sares Regis, for help.
“What I started saying to Northwestern is that there is a much bigger idea that you might contemplate in the context of long-term ownership and value creation,” Birdwell said during an interview at his San Mateo office.
With that, the Pilgrim-Triton Plan was born.
While the city approved a master plan for the area in 2008, each of its four phases requires separate approval, meaning the area’s final makeup is still up for debate.
Phase one, approved and scheduled to be completed by the summer of 2013, includes 300 rental apartments and a 650-space parking garage, along with commercial and office space.
The developer has yet to submit specific plans for phases two, three and four, which are to be completed within a decade.
“We haven’t determined our precise next steps,” Birdwell said. “Really, the office will be driven by market demand, and market demand is reemerging.”
While local residents cannot change the outcome of phase one, they are fighting the number of housing units the developer would like to add in the three upcoming phases.
“It’s just going to add more traffic,” Washburn said. “They’re focusing too much on high-density occupancy. And I understand. Being somebody who rents, the rental market is very hot right now, but still.”
While the development agency says the space will add vibrancy to the city by allowing people to work, live and shop all in one location, some residents say the city cannot handle the additional traffic, and the students will flood elementary schools already at capacity.
Foster City Mayor Art Kiesel, says the plan will enhance the property’s value and result in higher property taxes, which will benefit the city over time.
The San Mateo Foster City school district, says it will assign all of the children who move to the new development to Audubon Elementary School, one of the town’s three primary schools, and Bowditch Middle School, Foster City’s only middle school.
However, with 632 students already enrolled, Audubon is at full capacity. More portable classrooms would need to be added, and the school already has seven existing trailers to accommodate overflow from the classrooms.
According to Jennifer Robinson, the president of Audubon’s parent teacher association, 10 new classrooms are scheduled to be added by the 2014-2015 school year.
“It is my understanding that, after that building is complete, all of the current portables will be removed from the school site, and no new portables are planned,” she wrote in an email.
“Some of the teachers may not be the highest caliber that they’re pulling in there just to get teachers to cover the amount of students that are there,” Washburn said.
The district has toyed with the idea of adding another elementary school, but plans remain tenuous at best.
“The district has been working on opening a fourth elementary school in Foster City to address capacity issues for the last three years,” assistant superintendent Molly Barton wrote in an email. “We continue to recognize the need for additional space in the City of Foster City. Additionally, we are currently working on an enrollment management plan to address capacity issues across the district.”
A spokeswoman for Barton declined to elaborate on the plan, but acknowledged that district enrollment is scheduled to increase by more than 1,000 students in the next five years from the approximately 11,200 currently enrolled. She added that neither the timing nor the location for a new school have been established.
“The need for a fourth school is urgent,” Robinson, the parent teacher association president, wrote, adding that she hopes the city council and residents will support the idea.
In a flyer mailed to local residents last month, Dr. Cynthia S. Simms, the school district’s new superintendent, announced a possible $130 million bond for the June 2012 ballot that would be used to upgrade technology and earthquake safety at the district’s existing schools and fund construction of a new school. But the school board abandoned that plan during a meeting at the beginning of March amid pushback from residents and said it would return to the drawing board to focus instead on finding a location and funding for another elementary school.
The district revealed in September that it was considering the Charter Square shopping center area on Shell Boulevard as a potential site for the school but agreed to look at alternate locations in response to opposition by locals and shopping center vendors. The land could be purchased with money from a 2008 bond measure, but paying for the new school building would require a new, separate bond measure.
Drew Hudacek, chief investment officer of development properties with Sares Regis, says residents often overestimate the impact of housing developments on schools.
“The statistics of single-family, multi-family housing are very different,” Hudacek said. “New housing tends to have lesser children per household than mature housing. Single family tends to have a lot more children per household than multifamily.”
Some residents argue that the space would be better used by adding a high school. Currently, students have to commute to San Mateo for classes.
“I would’ve loved to have seen a high school,” Washburn said. “San Mateo is such a hike to get over there.”
Sares Regis, on the other hand, touts the project as an exciting way to revitalize a previously industrial area and stresses the need for development to keep Foster City healthy and competitive in attracting successful tenants.
“The Peninsula is one of the most active commercial real-estate markets in the country right now and one of the most successful as far as tenants taking space, looking for space and growing,” said Gary Pike, a spokesman for Sares Regis. “You’ve got your Google, your Facebook, and a lot of other companies growing along with them.”
With all of that growth comes traffic, however, and residents worry about congestion. Sares Regis says it has worked with the city to mitigate the problem. The developer provided the city with funding to make changes to reduce traffic complications during the decade-long project.
Using that money the city will add several traffic circles to improve traffic flow and modify the busy Hillsdale Boulevard and Pilgrim Drive intersection to deter people from taking shortcuts through the new development.
“We had to take care of all of the traffic problems on day one,” Hudacek said.
Mayor Kiesel noted in an email that residents should also expect to see an additional lane added to Triton Drive and another on-ramp to westbound Highway 92. The traffic signal software is also to be upgraded to make the flow of traffic more consistent.
Not all residents agree, however, that enough can be done to compensate for the additional cars that will flood the area. Mayor Kiesel acknowledged that even with the changes that the funding will allow, traffic remains a concern.
“The one down-side of the project is the increased traffic,” Kiesel wrote.
Curtis Banks, head of community development for the city planning commission, says his team will review the application for each phase to ensure it conforms to the environmental impact report agreed upon when the master plan was approved. The public is invited to attend the meetings and offer opinions, he added.
“People can come or write a letter,” Banks said. “Not a lot of people have, though.”
Sares Regis reduced the proposed buildings’ heights in response to opposition from residents of the single-family housing area across Hillsdale Boulevard from the site. By using tiers, beginning with low, single-story buildings close to the residential area and gradually increasing building height to as much as six stories near Highway 92, Birdwell hopes to alleviate their concern.
The company is also adding a row of single-family homes, for sale not for rent, near Hillsdale Boulevard as a gesture to the nearby residential neighborhood. But residents like Washburn say the changes will do nothing to reduce school crowding and traffic.
Washburn says the traffic will detract from her life without giving her anything in return.
Local residents may file complaints with the city, when specifics for the final three phases are up for approval. Washburn and other residents hope they can persuade the city to reduce the scale of the project.
Birdwell and those at Sares Regis say they hope local residents will be open to change.
“Planning and architecture can totally change the character of a space,” Birdwell said, “and in my view add value to peoples lives in a dramatic way.”