Seeking to accommodate a ballooning student population, Palo Alto officials swiftly and enthusiastically approved on Monday night the establishment of a new day care center near the Baylands.
The council voted 8-0, with Vice Mayor Greg Scharff absent, to approve the conversion of a vacant building on East Bayshore Road into the city's newest day care facility, one that would accommodate 117 children. It would be operated by Mustard Seed, a day care center that has been offering bilingual education in English and Chinese to young students for the past 20 years. The center is currently based at Emerson School on West Bayshore Road, less than a mile away from the new site.
"It's very clear we need quality child care in this community," said Councilwoman Gail Price, who proposed approving the new facility.
The council voted to support the new location for a day care center after hearing from about a dozen parents and students, all of whom praised Mustard Seed and stressed the need for more space. The demand is being driven by both a growing number of students in Palo Alto and the city's rising Asian population.
According to the city's draft Housing Element, the number of preschool children (aged 5 and under) in Palo Alto has jumped by 29 percent between 2000 and 2008. The number of school-age children (ages 5 to 17) went up by 17 percent during the same period.
"It's been kind of crowded with new people joining and I think the new building would really help us," said student Amelia Mao, echoing the sentiments of many of her peers at the meeting.
David Ng, whose daughter has been attending Mustard Seed for two years, also urged the council to approve the new use for the property at 2585 East Bayshore Road. Though the building would remain largely unchanged, the property would be equipped with a play area, new fencing, a handicap ramp and new parking stalls in the front lot.
"The larger play area and facility will allow more space for these kids," Ng said. "This center has grown dramatically, as the children and parents have been talking about. They actually need this facility."
Not everyone, however, is happy about the new proposal. Neighbors of the new day care center have expressed concerns at prior hearings about the new facility's potential traffic impacts, particularly during drop-off and pick-up times. The building shares an entrance driveway with 2595 East Bayshore Road and neighbors have argued that the new day care center would lead to cars queuing up at the property, creating congestion. Several of them reiterated these points Monday night.
Yates McKenzie, who represents the owner of 2595 East Bayshore, urged the council to scale down the project. Traffic impacts could prompt the property owners to resort to a civil lawsuit to remedy the situation, something that McKenzie said critics don't want to do.
"We'd much prefer if the City Council perhaps limit the number of students who can be served at the day care center."
The council's vote followed prior endorsements from the Architectural Review Board and the Planning and Transportation Commission, both of which approved the project with no dissent. City staff and traffic consultants had concluded that the project would not bring with it significant traffic impacts.
The council, in approving the project, also directed staff to address potential traffic backups by evaluating conditions and, if necessary, pursuing solutions such as staggered pickup schedules. This idea, pitched by Councilwoman Karen Holman, met opposition from Mayor Yiaway Yeh, Councilman Larry Klein and Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd, all of whom argued that the city should not be thrust into the role of an enforcer over a neighbor dispute. The rest of the council sided with Holman and voted 5-3 to support her amendment.
The council was unanimous, however, in its position that the city desperately needs more day care facilities.
"I think this is a use that meets a community need and, in general, this is a location that is appropriate for it," Councilman Pat Burt said.