"Hit any traffic on the way in?" asks Scott Borden, seated at the dining room table of his exquisite 1930s Spanish villa home on Randolph Terrace in Mission Hills. "No? Well, try driving down Randolph at 8:00 in the morning. You'll really get a show. People are all queued up there waiting to drop off their kids."
The kids are students of Francis Parker school, an expensive school for kids in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. Since 1913, the school has sat on five acres bound by Montecito Avenue on the south, Randolph Street to the west, a canyon to the east, and Plumosa Way to the north -- or one lot's width north of Plumosa, depending on whom you talk to.
Also sitting at the table -- which affords the diner a grand view across Interstate 8 and Riverwalk Golf Course beyond -- is Sally Julien, who lives a block west of Francis Parker. She continues the traffic complaint. "I just came down Randolph about 3:00 this afternoon, and for a full block there was a line of cars just sitting there waiting to move. To get to my house, I had to drive down the wrong side of the street to get to the corner with Arbor Drive and make a left."
"I can leave this house in a good mood in the morning," Borden says, "and in two blocks I'm a raving maniac. I'm serious. I get to work and I'm shaking, I'm so angry."
Borden chairs and Julien is the secretary of a group of area residents calling itself NOPE, an acronym for No on Parker Expansion. The group formed a year ago when Parker sent out a letter to neighborhood residents telling of plans to -- again, depending on whom you talk to -- renovate or expand the campus.
After the traffic caused by the school, the next thing Borden and Julien mention is parking problems associated with it. As it is now, the school has no on-campus parking. Its staff of 50 to 60 and parents park on the neighborhood's narrow streets. On normal days, it's not a big problem. But on assembly nights, when the parents and students all congregate on campus at once, things can get messy. "They just had back-to-school night," Borden says, "and on back-to-school night, you have 450 kids and their parents come. So that means 450 cars."
"At a minimum," Julien interjects.
"And they're huge SUVs, not just cars," Borden continues. "And there are 50 to 60 faculty members. So in this little neighborhood, you've got 500 people looking for a place to park, which is just impossible. So a lot of parents will park blocking driveways, or they'll park in driveways or whatever. Because the neighborhood is so aware of their expansion plans, many were writing license-plate numbers and taking photos of violations. And I actually got a letter from the school asking me to have my members refrain from taking photos because their parents were concerned about their children's privacy. I couldn't believe it."
The irony of the situation is, Borden and his coalition -- which he estimates comprises 80 percent of the surrounding households -- are willing to put up with the traffic crunches and parking hassles in their neighborhood of $500,000-and-up homes -- so long as Parker is willing to abandon, or at least amend, its expansion/renovation plans. "We think the school is a valuable part of our neighborhood," Borden says. "It's sort of a mystical element of Mission Hills. It's been here so long, and the San Diego public schools aren't as good as they could be. So parents do perceive Mission Hills as a place to live because they can send their kids to Francis Parker. On the other hand, over 80 percent of the kids that go to this school aren't from here. They're from La Jolla, Rancho Santa Fe, as far away as Jamul. So it's not really a local school. And even those 20 percent who live in Mission Hills, very few of them walk to school."
Borden unrolls a construction plan for the campus on the table. "What we've got here is a school with 450 kids. The site that they're on here, the whole thing, is five acres, but only three of it is usable. The rest is canyon. Currently, the school is a little under 17,000 square feet, and their expansion plans call for that to go to 47,000 square feet, which is triple. When you want to triple the size of your school, and you don't want to deal adequately with the issues of parking and traffic and all that sort of stuff, we say you may not do that."
Grant Lichtman, assistant headmaster of Francis Parker School, stands on the sidewalk greeting students as they're dropped off at the Mission Hills campus. It's 8:00 a.m., and there is a line of SUVs and minivans backed up along Randolph Street, but the line is moving steadily. A crossing guard with a pole-mounted stop-sign directs traffic and escorts kids across the street. Cones along the east side of the street keep people from parking and leave room for parents to pull over, drop off their kids, and move on without double parking. As four school staff members whisk the kids through a pair of gates and onto campus, the parents turn left on Arbor Drive, then another left on Palmetto Way, and they're gone. "Here you see our 'traffic problem,' " Lichtman says sarcastically. "You can see the traffic is moving along fine, and in 10 or 15 minutes it will all be gone."
Walking through the administration building and into the magnolia-shaded courtyard beyond, Lichtman leads a visitor to a line of classrooms forming the south wall of the courtyard. He stops at the open door of one classroom in which 15 to 20 first- or second-graders are sitting Indian style on the floor listening to their teacher tell a story. "A year ago this summer, we redid this whole wing," Lichtman explains. "All the electrical systems were the original electrical systems. It had been the old two-wire stuff that dated back to when all you had to run was one light bulb. Now, you've got computers and VCRs and all that sort of thing. So we put in new electrical systems, new cabinets, new lighting, things like that. But you can see, these rooms are still much smaller than a regular public school classroom. This is about 700 square feet. A public-school classroom is about 900 square feet."
Lichtman strides back across the courtyard to another line of classrooms on the north side. "The majority of the project will be replacing this wing over here. These were never meant to be academic classrooms. They were originally used for wood shop and ceramics shop in the old days. You can see they have support pillars right in the middle of the classroom. And these are much, much smaller. As a matter of fact, there's one room here that's only 400 square feet. So, essentially, we're going to take this wing down and make a two-story classroom building right in its place and just expand the size of the classrooms. We're not adding classrooms, and we're not adding students, we're just making the classrooms bigger."
Down the hallway, Lichtman opens another door leading into a classroom lined with bookshelves. "Another need we have is a library. Right now, this tiny classroom is our library."
Over the years, as many as 500 students have been enrolled at Francis Parker's Mission Hills campus at one time. The school also has a 6th-through-12th-grade campus across Mission Valley in Linda Vista. Currently, Lichtman says, the number is 430. And as part of the conditional use permit, which would result from the city council approving their project, Lichtman says, "We're putting a cap on the student enrollment at 438 students. This will be the first time that the community has ever had the assurance that student enrollment will not grow."
Originally, a strip of public street called Plumosa Way, which runs 100 yards from Randolph Street to the edge of the canyon, was the northern boundary of the school. The street served Parker and two houses on the north side of the street, a blockish pseudo-adobe number on the east and a wood-sided '60s modern to the west on the corner with Randolph. Parker bought the former five years ago and the latter this past summer. "What we have right now," Lichtman says, "with this street running through our campus, is a safety and security issue. Unfortunately, we live in times in which schools just don't have the luxury of having public streets going right through their campuses. So an important part of the plan is making a secure entrance right here on this alley and relandscaping this in here to make a really nice area."
Finally, Parker's planned project would be to tear down the adobe house and build a one-story library and science building in its place. "It was originally going to be a two-story building, but we had comments about that [from the neighborhood] so we changed it to a one-story building. It will actually be much lower than a lot of the houses in the area."
As for the '60s modern next door, "It's going to be a headmaster's residence," Lichtman says. "We've made a commitment in the deed that the home will always be retained as a residential property. It's deed restricted. Not only can we never tear it down and put something there, but we can't even put school offices or classrooms in it. It's going to be maintained as a residence. And, we've made a commitment to maintain the architectural integrity of the house because there's a sensitivity in the neighborhood to that as well."
Scott Borden and his coalition are suspicious of the headmaster's- residence idea. "They've actually used the headmaster's-residence line before," Borden says, "back in the '60s. They bought a house where their tennis courts are now, let it deteriorate, and then their only choice was to tear it down. We assume that's what's going to happen here."
Regarding the deed restrictions on the house, Borden says, "We have a number of attorneys in our group, and their comments on deed restrictions was kind of to laugh. They're unenforceable. And that's what the lawyers are saying about the restrictions is that any attorney worth his salt can get around them."
The absorption of Plumosa Way into the campus is one of the neighborhood coalition's points of contention for a number of reasons. One has to do with parking. "One of the issues," Lichtman acknowledges, "is that over time some of our faculty have parked on this street, and now we are going to lose that parking. But we're putting on-site parking onto the campus for the first time ever. We've proposed a parking lot taking over where our tennis courts are on the other side of campus. We're taking those out, and we're going to put in 33 parking places. So there's going to be a significant net increase in available parking, which will be getting cars off the street."
Aside from parking issues, the annexing of Plumosa Way and the plans to build north of it rile Borden because he sees the action as Francis Parker oozing out of what he calls its "existing footprint" and spreading into the neighborhood. "So really, issue number one for us in the neighborhood is one of footprint -- remaining within their current boundaries. We say it stops here," he points to the south side of Plumosa Way on his site map. "We say it doesn't go any further than this. We don't want you to expand into a residential neighborhood. Our feeling is, if we give them this," he puts his finger on the proposed library and science building on the map, "ten years later they're going to want a couple of more houses, and in another ten years they're going to want more. It's just not acceptable."