Good Neighbors


August 5, 2002


Model School will show how to build communities

They say that everything we need to know we learned in kindergarten.

As seasoned professionals we found that a school construction project has provided the classroom for many agencies to relearn important lessons like how to share and work together for the benefit of the whole group. By collaborating and coordinating resources, San Diego will turn the construction of a single new school into a more comprehensive vision of building a new community and, in the process, create a model for other cities.

Proposition MM (the $1.5 billion dollar bond measure approved by voters in 1998 to build and repair schools) targeted midcity for desperately needed facilities. It was common knowledge that another school was needed in City Heights to relieve overcrowding at Edison, Hamilton and Rosa Parks elementary schools. We also knew what that could mean for hundreds of residents -- not only displacement, but also the loss of affordable housing in this highly urbanized corridor.

What was needed was an approach to create more than a school; we needed a plan to establish this school as a cornerstone for the community while minimizing the loss of housing. We now have that with the proposed Model School.

The Model School will involve four public agencies and the community working together to build a new school, replace lost housing, set aside vast areas of open park space and provide social services, such as health care and day care, for neighboring families. This new development will function as a community center, bringing investment and facilities to a neglected neighborhood.

Nowhere has anything like this been done.

Typically, at least in California cities, limited space means that building a new school is fraught with controversy. That's why the initial description of the project says, "the concept of the Model School was to include not only extended services for the community with a focus on removing a child's barriers to learning, but also to provide replacement housing for that housing lost to school development." And here is an even more pioneering concept: "to provide amenities to accompany this housing so as to make the neighborhood attractive to existing and future residents."

Building new schools often means demolishing existing housing. And while homeowners will get fair market value for their homes and renters are entitled to relocation payments, they would have had to search for a new place to live at a time when the housing market is overheating. What makes this plan unique? While 245 existing houses and apartments will have to come down to make way for the new development, they will be replaced by 350 units of new housing -- affordable apartments and market rate condominiums. Thus, instead of losing places to live, the neighborhood will gain new homes.

On top of that, because preliminary proposals call for underground parking and building up a few stories, more attention can be given to open space. So, instead of the 2.77 acres in the neighborhood now, 9.23 acres will be set aside for recreation and other uses.

Price Charities provided seed money to fund preliminary design plans.

The Model School was an outgrowth of a year and a half of meetings among city and school officials with considerable participation from the community and input from the City Heights Area Planning Committee, neighborhood focus groups and teachers. Two key participants, Price Charities and the SDSU National Center for the 21st Century Schoolhouse, which serves as a clearinghouse of ideas on school design, helped advance the concept from ideas and discussion to preliminary plans.

"This is an example of using a smart growth approach to a project," said Jack McGrory of Price Charities and former city manager. The classic way of building schools actually aggravates the housing crisis, in McGrory's opinion. But this concept not only meets the goals of affordable housing, it builds a school that is friendly to the community. "I think that's where people would describe it as innovative," McGrory added. Also, as he points out, the price of land has gotten so high that "facilities created by public agencies need to be shared."

New ideas need new organizational structures.

Last month, the San Diego Model School Development Agency was created. It is the result of a joint powers agreement among the San Diego Unified School District, the City of San Diego, the San Diego Housing Authority and the San Diego Redevelopment Agency. This JPA is so innovative that it takes special state legislation, sponsored by Assemblywoman Kehoe, to implement.

The new agency will be operated by a seven-member board of directors representing each of the four government entities and the community, but will function as its own legal entity. Once the board members are appointed, the agency will develop a financing plan, prepare an environmental impact statement, select and acquire a site, design the project and select a master developer. The cost of the project is pegged at $140 million.

As CEO of this new agency, it will be my job to help guide this plan that calls for:

  • An elementary school serving 700 students to open in 2006;

  • Multifamily housing to include 350 units;

  • Open space -- 9.23 acres with walkways connecting housing;

  • Recreational areas;

  • Underground parking to conserve space;

  • Family services, including health and day care; and

  • Retail establishments serving the neighborhood.

    Anchoring it all will be the new school.

    Schools Superintendent Alan Bersin, for one, sees this as "a breakthrough in municipal relationships." In the past, the school district has been criticized for eliminating homes in favor of schools. In urban areas, however, where there is limited space, there are few options, until now.

    Making this happen will require setting aside individual agendas, for the interests of the community must be paramount for any administration to be effective.

    Undoubtedly, the project is the best use of this landscape because it fits the City of Villages plan to encourage mixed-use development in placing housing, jobs, services and transportation near each other.

    "A significant achievement," Mayor Dick Murphy calls what is already being viewed as a model for the nation because it forges a strong alliance among those agencies having a strong community impact: housing, education, commerce and social services, and all directly corresponding to those needs identified by area residents.

    As far as smart growth goes, the Model School project deserves an A-plus.

    Morris is the chief executive officer of the San Diego Housing Commission.


    August 5, 2002