Palo Alto Weekly
News - July 9, 2010
Big changes afoot at Gunn, Paly
Workers move dozens of portables to clear sites for major construction
by Chris Kenrick
Teenagers heading back to school this fall will find dramatically altered landscapes at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools.
At Gunn, the 26 portable classrooms that comprised the "Titan Village" section of campus have been moved to the parking lot to make way for construction of a new, two-story building for the math and English departments.
At Paly, the campus is abuzz with "belly dump" trailers, bulldozers, backhoes and motor graders.
The Churchill Avenue field containing baseball and softball diamonds has been dug up — resembling a moonscape studded with mounds of dirt and gravel — and will not re-open until February.
And the entire central campus is fenced off as workers assemble 16 portable classrooms in the Paly quad.
The work — funded by a $378 million facilities bond that was approved by 77.5 percent of school district voters in June 2008 — eventually will touch all 17 campuses of the Palo Alto Unified School District.
The bond program is intended to modernize outdated classrooms and expand school capacity to accommodate anticipated enrollment growth.
Now at 11,680 students, district-wide enrollment has crept up steadily from a low of 7,452 in 1989-1990.
The previous high point was at the crest of the Baby Boom years in 1967-68, when enrollment was 15,575 and Palo Alto had three comprehensive high schools.
Enrollment had dropped to about 11,000 by 1979, when Cubberley High School was closed.
"We don't know what will happen with enrollment — we certainly wish we did," School Superintendent Kevin Skelly said in a meeting last month.
"But if you look at the last 20 years it seems that our enrollment is impervious to some factors. Whether the economy is good or bad, enrollment continues to increase."
Skelly said the bond measure projects "take us to capacity" at the district's three middle schools and two high schools.
"If it were to go well above that, we'd certainly have to consider another middle school or another high school," he said, speaking at a June 16 joint meeting of the Palo Alto City Council and the boards of the Palo Alto Unified School District and the Foothill-De Anza Community College District regarding the future of Cubberley.
The summer changes at the high schools are aimed at clearing space for construction of brand-new facilities.
At Paly, portables were cleared from a spot near Embarcadero Road as well as from a quad near the school's corporation yard to create construction space for a Media Arts building and a two-story classroom building that will house the math and social studies departments.
Workers are under tight deadlines to have the quad portables hooked up and ready to go by Aug. 13 so that teachers can move in on Aug. 16.
The first day of school for students is Tuesday, Aug. 24.
Groundbreaking on the new structures themselves could be as late as next spring or summer, depending on the speed of state approvals.
Plans for the new buildings on both high school campuses will be submitted within the next four weeks to the Division of State Architect, charged with oversight of all school construction, according to Thomas Hodges, a senior vice-president of O'Connor Construction Management Inc. and program director for the school-district projects.
The Board of Education, at the recommendation of site committees at both high schools, decided to move the portables this summer rather than wait a year so that construction could begin quickly once the projects clear the Division of State Architect, expected to take up to nine months.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at email@example.com.
Posted by Concerned Parent,
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 13, 2010 at 11:39 am
One Gunn Mom,
"Even without the population growth, the bond was needed to replace portable buildings."
Absolutely. I'm not arguing that we don't need to make improvements. I'm arguing (using actual numbers from that project, for example) that we'd be better off spending $8 million putting in a nice, smaller, more open single-story structure there, instead of spending $20 million putting in a two-story structure because we have to accommodate all this growth at that site.
(I mean, frankly, if you value open space so much that you're willing to spend all those millions for any amount, we'd be better off reopening Cubberley because the improvements at Gunn and Paly could actually go for smaller, rather than larger, student bodies.)
Get in there and take a closer look at expenditures and what is being planned. Key people involved in planning this project are expecting shortfalls before all the IMPROVEMENTS are done; they have stated publicly the expectation of going back to the community and getting more money later. That makes it all the more critical to examine why we are ultimately going to put tens of millions just into the premium on building (several) multistory structures at the high schools.
As to your point about input at Gunn, I completely disagree. I saw that 1-story scenario situation unfold, and it was so strange it was almost suspect (the architects do make more money on the 2-story plan since they work on commission and the 2-story costs so much more).
The architects didn't really lay out a 1-story alternative plan, they drew extra squares onto the schematics in prime spaces, such as smack in the center of the quad, with area that far exceeded the usable area of the second story they were replacing. More than one parent asked for specifics, such as square footage and usage details -- and why, for example, there wasn't just a slightly larger one story where the 2-story is (2 story buildings don't give you twice the usable square footage, because of of vertical elements like stairs and elevators) instead of unrelated extra building.
One parent specifically asked for square footage numbers and no one answered. As I pointed out before, there was no back-and-forth. There was no DISCUSSION with the community. People had to submit little question cards and were not allowed a response or follow up if their question wasn't answered.
The CA State Allocation Board's Public School Construction Cost Reduction Guidelines says that multistory construction is so much more costly per square foot than single story that it's only worth building up in narrow circumstances (that don't apply to Gunn at all, though in one case may apply to Paly). They say multistory costs so much more, it's not even worth building multistory to save land expenses and the district already owns the land.
Anyway, the document also says if districts want matching funds, they have to show they have made an effort to substantially comply with the guidelines to reduce costs. We aren't applying for state matching funds, but I don't think that was a hard fact (at least in the architect's mind) then. (Just curious, why aren't we asking for matching funds, by the way?)
In the case of proposed multistory construction, because multistory is so costly, the recommendation of the Cost Reduction Guidelines is to come up with an alternative single-story plan and compare. Hence what I saw as a completely inadequate, even disingenuous show of an alternative 1-story plan. There wasn't a real 1-story plan. It was never discussed by the staff panel like the 2-story, there was no back and forth to try to figure out if it was feasible and how the needs of the school would work with the 1-story plan as they were doing with the 2-story. There was a striking lack of description of what was being shown. There was no cost breakout. The staff simply saw all these boxes drawn in available space -- like smack in the center of the Quad -- and said no (as they were clearly intended to do).
The 1-story "plan" was inserted in the public agenda, though, and there was enough of a show to satisfy anyone who didn't want to look too hard. But no, there never was a legitimate effort to make a 1-story plan alternative.
I looked at how much open space would be saved with that 2-story building, by the way, and it was around 1% of the BUILDABLE acreage (not the overall total, just the buildable) at Gunn. Of course "no one" liked the sham 1-story plan, it was presented as filling in all the open space on campus, which is just ludicrous.
But more to the point, that's comparing structures for a school intended to take up to 2500 students either way. If Cubbereley were in the picture instead, we would be looking at a single-story building there for a school of smaller rather than larger enrollment. Spending the money on actual buildings instead of just the extra costs of building higher buildings to pack in more students.