Trading places: Schools, land, ballot measures, and morning drop-offs

Trading places: Schools, land, ballot measures, and morning drop-offs
Slides presented to Alameda School Board on June 27, 2023.

This is a blog post about the future of school facilities in Alameda — specifically, the potential to build affordable multi-family housing along Clement Street and the potential to promote safe cycling and walking by Wood Middle School students — but first a capsule history...

Either it's one of my first memories, or it's a story so long retold by my parents that it's become my memory: watching construction trucks through a fence.

The diggers and loaders and levelers (I used to know the actual names) were so fascinating as they turned what used to be school playing fields into single-family houses. On my side of the fence, my daycare operated out of the classrooms of the former public elementary school — low-slung parallel buildings with covered walkways, the kind that are likely familiar to any child of the suburbs of California.

While I didn't know all these details as a 3 year old, I became familiar with the pattern as it repeated throughout my childhood in Silicon Valley: Declining enrollments leading districts to consolidate schools. Austerity imposed by Prop 13 leading districts sell their increasingly valuable land. Some excess buildings repurposed into city rec. centers or rented out to non-profits.

And then things got complicated. The Baby Boomers had been having babies, and those babies were growing up. Instead of softening numbers of Gen X students, the same districts were now enrolling "Tidal Wave II" of a swiftly increasing number of Millennials— still under the cruel whip of the voters who approved Prop 13, without the excess land they had just sold off, and now with the added complication of other programs operating out of some of the few spare classrooms.

While it was only at daycare that I got to see the construction equipment up close, the whipflash affected all my subsequent schools for better and for worse. I'll spare you the details (I hear Alameda, especially the West End, may have some of the same challenges) and end this capsule history with a point that's relevant to today: California's K-14 school districts have to navigate the challenges of Prop 13-imposed austerity by being extremely nimble to open and close schools as enrollment changes, strategic with selling just enough but not too much of their land, and collaborative in their relationships with their surrounding cities and other users of their facilities.

So, now to Alameda in the 21st century, where some of these very same dynamics are now in play at the site of Wood Middle School...

Rebuilding Wood Middle School

At last night's meeting of the Alameda School Board, staff presented plans for an almost entire rebuild of Wood Middle School:

Slides presented to Alameda School Board on June 27, 2023.

Let's talk about two things in this diagram: First, long term of the "future Alameda High School stadium" that's incidentally included. Second, the near term of the "new entry campus drive" and auto "drop-off" zone in the core of the new Wood Middle School campus.

Unlocking the potential for new infill housing

Building the "future Alameda high school stadium" next to Wood (on the current vacant site of the closed Lum Elementary School) will complete a sequence of moves that could — if the school district and the city cooperate — produce more multi-family housing in the core of Alameda.

Imagine you are a general surveying a map — but instead of the movement of troops across a battlefield, you're surveying the movement of school facilities, students, and programs across the island of Alameda. Here's the potential sequence of events:

Slides presented to Alameda School Board on June 27, 2023.
  1. former Lum Elementary School buildings are torn down and replaced with a temporary campus of portable buildings (on new seismically safe foundations)
  2. the majority of Wood Middle School is torn town and all programs move, during construction, into the temporary campus
  3. once the new Wood Middle School campus is ready, the temporary campus is vacated
  4. some (or all?) of Otis Elementary School moves from the East End into the temporary campus while the main building complex of Otis is rebuilt
  5. once the new Otis building is ready, the temporary campus is once again vacated — and this time it is decomissioned
  6. the new Alameda High School stadium is built on the site of the temporary campus — and Thompson Field and adjoining practice field on Clement Ave can be decomissioned
  7. Alameda Unified School District works with the City of Alameda to rezone the Thompson Field parcel for multi-family housing, which will significantly increases its monetary value and its overall utility
Alameda Unified's warehouse for food service distribution on Clement Ave. Copyright Google

In a parallel sequence of events:

  1. the school district uses one of its under-utilized parcels on the West End to build a new facilities yard and food service warehouse on the same site
  2. once that new facility is ready, food service can move out of its existing warehouse on Clement Ave (immediately next to Thompson Field)
  3. even though the existing food service warehouse is the ugliest of metal buildings, I believe the underlying parcel is still zoned "O" for open-space. If the timing is right, this could be rezoned at the same time as the rezoning of the adjoining parcel for the decomissioned Thompson Field

If all these moves work out successfully, the school district would end up with many more modern facilities for students, a more efficient footprint for its staff, and some valuable land to potentially sell to a developer to build multi-family housing, netting some more revenue for the district in the process.

There's nothing more permanent at a California school than a portable building is the saying I've heard over the years — and it's probably true. The majority of my own education was probably in temporary buildings. I even spent some years on a University of California campus as a doctoral student working in a temporary barracks building that was built during World War II and in use ever since. My kids are now both spending amble time in portables. I mention this just because some school districts find that "portable villages" are so useful that they never go away. Even if Alameda Unified is planning to decomission the temporary campus after Otis students depart in step #5, there will probably be a strong temptation to use it again for an unplanned need...

Subsidizing affordable housing — and supporting schools — through the ballot

The school district would get top dollar selling its parcels on Clement for market-rate housing. But could this hypothetical multi-family housing be subsidized and offered at a more affordable price point, while still providing more revenue toward education?

The school district and Alameda Housing Authority have already started to turn another smaller site into subsidized affordable housing (a maintenance building on the East End that has been moved over the West End consolidated facility where food-services will eventually move). With proper funding, this could be done again.

The city's newly adopted Housing Element proposes that the city's Planning Board consider a bond measure to raise more funds for subsidized affordable housing:

from "Program 8: Affordable Housing Incentives and Waivers" (p. 24) of the Alameda 2023-2031 Housing Element

It's now half way through 2023 and I don't think I've seen the Planning Board hold any hearings on this yet...

But you know who is holding hearings on funding measures to add to the ballot in 2024? Alameda's school district.

At the same meeting where the school board adopted the Wood Middle School designs, they also heard plans for a new funding measure to potentially replace two existing parcel taxes that are set to expire:

Presentation at June 27, 2023 School Board meeting.

So, in addition to the complex sequence of events needed to move students and facilities around the island, there's a potentially complex sequence of events needed for the school district and the city to coordinate on the timing of when their funding requests go out to voters on ballots. I imagine there's both a science and an art to successfully passing funding measures in this era of Prop 13-imposed austerity. I hope the relevant decision-makers from the school district and city will chat with each other sooner than later about this...

Here's a non-expert opinion: A ballot measure dedicated solely to funding subsidized affordable housing in Alameda is right thing to do and benefits everyone — but it may feel too much like a gift from existing Alameda residents to hypothetical future residents. I wonder if Alameda voters are ready for an infrastructure funding measure that's large enough to encompass tackling the city's $200mm of deferred capital expenses, prepare for sea- and ground-water rise, and build out social support services — including some subsidized affordable housing. Think about how Biden's Build Back Better was originally supposed to support both "hard" physical infrastructure and "soft" social infrastructure. Subsidizing affordable housing could fit into an overall vision of improving Alameda that may be compelling to a bunch of voters for many different but complementary reasons.

Driving right up to school... isn't a good idea

Now to a more immediate concern in the district's designs for Wood Middle School: the "new entry campus drive" and auto "drop-off" zone.

Alameda Unified and City of Alameda are working at cross purposes here — with the school district promoting an unnecessarily auto-centric plan:

Presentation at June 27, 2023 School Board meeting.

The district proposes to cut a brand new road on the southern and eastern edges of Rittler Park. For parents driving their kids to Wood Middle School, it looks like they'd enter the one-way access road from Otis Drive, drop their kid in front of the core of the Wood campus, and then drive out on to Grand. Along its eastern leg, the access road will also provide more parking (separate from the existing lot south of Wood and the existing lot east of Lum).

I hear that there's a long and intense line of cars dropping students off at Wood in the morning. This solution does address that problem — but will likely cause more problems:

  • At the entrance to the access road off Otis, drivers will cross a protected bike lane. How will cyclists in that bike lane be visibile to parents in SUVs who are turning into the access road, potentially from both west-bound and east-bound Otis?
  • At the exit of the access road to Grand, drivers will cross a new two-way cycletrack. Again, how will cyclists in that bike lane be protected from parents in SUVs? If parents want to turn onto southbound Grand, will they stop their cars in the cycletrack until passing auto traffic clears?
  • At Lincoln Middle School, parents in cars successfully drop their kids off outside the two-way cycletrack that abuts the school — they don't need to drive their SUVs across the cycletrack.
  • For students arriving by bicycle from either the Grand cycle track or the Otis protected bike lane, how will they get into the campus core?
  • For students who walk to Wood, how will they enter the campus? Will there only be one allowed entry point, at the auto drop-off? The broader campus has existing pedestrian entry points that are not marked on this circulation plan — will those be removed or were they just forgotten? (For example, there's a pedestrian path from Kitty Hawk Road into the eastern edge of the Wood Middle School track.)
  • Delivery trucks, buses, and fire trucks may need to access the campus core, but just because they have access doesn't mean the general public needs to be able to drive on the same pavement every day. (In some places, limited-access roads are made of nice permeable pavement or planted half with grass.)

Due to oddly zigzaging property lines, the district will need an easement from the city to build its proposed access road, so there's still a chance some of these downsides will be debated.

The city has been systematically trying to improve safety and comfort for students walking and cycling to Wood Middle School. Here's a slide from city staff's recent presentation showing how important improving Grand Street is for students traveling to Wood:

Presentation to city Transportation Commission on June 21, 2023
As I've written before, and I will again: Transportation is the largest source of carbon emissions in Alameda, and short trips are the most common of auto-based trips by Alameda residents — it's all those short trips by gas cars where we have the most to gain by encouraging pollution-free modes of transport.

This includes encouraging walking and biking as alternatives to driving kids to school — and this also includes encouraging walking and biking to public parks like Rittler Park and the eventual Alameda High School stadium. For what it's worth, both Rittler Park and Thompson Field work without dedicated off-street parking in their curent forms. (I'll plead ignorance about how Alameda Little League works.)

Would it be kind of convenient to have more some more off-street parking next to the new Alameda HS stadium? Sure. Is it necessary given that all of these places work reasonably well with on-street parking currently? Not really. Would it support our community's climate and safety goals? Definitely not.

Full disclosure: I've driven a car to Rittler Park and parked on the street. I also often cycle past. My family and I will probably do both again. We'll almost certainly be schlepping one or two of our kids to the temporary school campus in the coming years. I bet they'll be some times when we need to drive there. I hope most of the time we'll be cycling. I offer this mainly to say that the goal isn't to judge personal behavior; rather, the goal is to build our city and public facilities to encourage sustainable and safe modes of travel.

This is where the strategic multi-step facility planning of a school district are perhaps not helpful for our broader goals as a community. Alameda Unified is trying to maximize the flexibility of each of its school sites. More parking feels like more flexibility. More roadway feels like more flexibility. But that flexibility for drivers will come as a cost to everyone else on foot and on bike.

Plus, all that additional pavement for cars is going to use up land — land that is so valuable that it should be used for classrooms, parks, athletic facilities, housing, and other productive uses.

So, let me recommend that Alameda Unified go back to the drawing board with its new campus circulation plan for Wood Middle School and that the City of Alameda request improvements for bike and pedestrian access. Schools and facilities may continue to strategically shift across the city, but this circulation plan will put in place the structure for the area surrounding Wood, the former Lum site, and Rittler Park and linking to the Grand Street corridor for decades to come. It's worth getting right.