By Frank Gormlie/ OB Rag
On Tuesday, May 14th, the San Diego Unified School District board authorized the sale of the former Mission Beach Elementary School property to private developers – despite objections by Mayor Filner, residents and community activists.
The 4 to 1 vote by the Board was the culmination of the process to cement the controversial sale of 2.23 acres of prime public school land, a half block from the Pacific Ocean and mere yards from Mission Bay. Mayor Filner, community planners and civic activists, as well as residents pleaded with the Board to keep the land in the public arena, and work with either the City or developers on alternatives.
The site was sold for $18.5 million to duo of developers, doing business as McKellar-Ashbrook LLC, registered in La Jolla. The School District has made the selling off of former campuses one of its chief methods of raising funds – a tactic heavily criticized by those activists. It has to raise $50 million in 2013 by selling land to help plug an estimated $84 to $92 million budget gap.
The campus has sat underutilized for years as the school-aged child population in Mission Beach plunged dramatically over the decades. And developers have craved the site for all those years – eying the primo land for future high-density apartments and condos. Community activists wanted a park, gardens, and police substation.
Mayor Bob Filner – in a personal appearance – had made a pitch to keep the property and have the City work with School District, to partner in order “to keep the land in public hands. I would have liked to work with you to say, ‘Let us buy it,’ ” Filner said.
“I think we can do this … Let’s figure out how one agency can help another. You have surplus land. I would like a park.”
But the Board was not convinced – and a majority was in no mood to change directions on this sale as a previous sale of the site had been halted at the last minute when School Board Trustee Sheila Jackson had switched her vote on the matter of the sale. Since then new Trustee Marne Foster has taken over the seat and was one of the four approving votes. The deadline for other public agencies to make bids on the property was long over, but Filner was not in office at that time.
The disapproving vote was cast by Scott Barnett – who represents the area where the proposed sale is taking place and who has consistently opposed the sale by the District of its lands. Barnett made a motion before the vote to sell the property to the city for $11 million, but in a partnership that allowed the District to retain a $7.5 million “equity ownership” in the land. But Barnett couldn’t get any other Board member to second his motion, so it failed.
Barnett termed the land sale “a cheap, quick fix” as he has been lobbying for options that would have the District keep the site and allow it to generate funds via leases, etc.
Some History of the Mission Beach Elementary School Land Sale
- June 22, 2012: the Board voted to place 7 surplus properties on the market. Public agencies – who get first dibs – were notified several days later, plus ads for the sale have been published.
- September 7, 2012: the deadline for public agencies to submit an offer to buy property; after that, properties become available to private sector bids.
- Late September, 2012: bids from the private sector opened, with the sale price able to be raised by an oral bidding auction. The board must vote on each agreement of purchase with the highest bidder.
- Late 2012: $16 million bid accepted;
- Late 2012: Trustee Jackson changes her vote, a vote that needs 4-1; this ends this bid process;
- late April 2013: School District has accepted a winning bid of $18.5 million
Opposition From Community
Opposition from the community to the pending sale was voiced by a number of speakers at the Board meeting. Debbie Watkins, chair of the Mission Beach Precise Planning Board, decried possible new high-density development. She stated:
“The sale of this school is very important to this community because it is the biggest land use change in Mission Beach in 50 years. There is strong support from residents to find other uses for this land.”
Other residents complained that the sale would allow more high density development that would bring in more congestion, traffic, crime and acerbate other community problems. They called for a combination use of park space, a police substation and neighborhood gardens.
“We know they are going to build condos,” the U-T quotes Lilly Hickman, chair of the Mission Bay school advisory committee. “That doesn’t bring families with children to the community to fill schools.”
Another observer of the meeting – Fran Zimmerman – a former Trustee herself – felt that the Board “was all over the place in its attempts to spin their terrible decision to sell off 2.3 acres of public school property in the middle of Mission Beach.”
Her observation was that the Board:
“seems to follow flawed staff direction on complicated land-use matters; they lack any sense of future planning for cooperative community use of public school assets for which they are responsible; and they cover up poor decisions like this one with rationalizations and excuses.”
This is for the children, said trustee Marne Foster. Sacramento made us do it, said trustee Kevin Beiser. We promised not to waffle this time, said Board president and waffler-in-chief, John Lee Evans. Trustee Richard Barrera seemed embarrassed to vote for the property sale and apologized for doing so to Mayor Bob Filner.
Mayor Filner believes public lands should remain in public hands. He was sympathetic to trustees’ having to balance another red-ink budget and recalled his own early days on the Board of Education.
Yet, with the District making efforts to fill its budgetary holes, trying like crazy not to have to lay off teachers, and with developers licking their chops for the last few years, applying pressure on everyone involved, there was little sympathy on the Board for such options.
When he heard about the high bid last month, Trustee Richard Barrera said he was happy with a high bid. He said:
“We were playing with fire by rejecting that bid before, so it’s important that we go ahead and accept the bid this time.”
Also in response to such a high bid for the Mission Beach property, Trustee Barnett emailed District staff, other Board members and the press, as quoted by VOSD:
“It shows that the real estate market is getting stronger in San Diego and that we are throwing away incredible upside value to the taxpayers by this foolhardy policy of selling land to cover over spending by this administration and school board, actions which border on financial malfeasance. In addition it’s an absolute disregard for the feelings of the community which will receive a high density development in an already overburdened area.”
Will Carless at VOSD – who has been following this issue – has even questioned the need by the District of selling off all this real estate, here in reference to another parcel:
Challenging the notion that the district so desperately needs to sell this particular land quickly, however, is the fact that the district projects it will end the current fiscal year with a budget surplus of close to $15 million.
Three more properties are due to be auctioned off in the next month.