Almanac

Schools - February 19, 2014

New home for German-American school?

by Renee Batti

The German-American International School has found a potential new home in the North Fair Oaks neighborhood, just a few miles from its current Menlo Park campus. Now school officials are working to build a good relationship with their likely new neighbors as they work with the county to obtain needed permits.

Now located on the former O'Connor School site in the Willows neighborhood, GAIS is being forced to leave that campus in May 2015 to make way for a new school to be constructed by the Menlo Park City School District, which owns the site. The district has leased the campus to GAIS since 1991, but is building a new school, to open in 2016, to accommodate burgeoning enrollment in its own schools.

GAIS, a bilingual international baccalaureate school with about 315 students, wants to relocate to five contiguous parcels totaling nearly 3 acres at 3515 Edison Way in unincorporated North Fair Oaks. The campus would be built in two phases, with the first phase completed by August 2015, in time for the launch of a new school year.

When it opens at that time, the school, which now enrolls children from preschool through eighth grade, will include a ninth-grade level, according to Dominic Liechti, the school's managing director. GAIS plans to add a new high school grade level each subsequent year until 2018, when a 12th-grade class is in place.

Project planner Olivia Boo of the San Mateo County Planning Department said a school is not a permitted use in the area's light-industrial zone, and that the school will be required to obtain a conditional use permit or apply to the county for a permitted-use designation. After a formal application is submitted, there will be community meetings in North Fair Oaks, and the plan will be reviewed by the county's Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.

Although no formal application has been submitted, Mr. Liechti submitted a letter to the county outlining GAIS's plans for the site. They include the renovation of the three existing buildings, which now are leased as office, manufacturing, research and commercial space. There will be 36 classrooms, a library, a multipurpose room and a teachers' lounge.

Plans also call for playing areas between the buildings. The two vacant parcels will be upgraded with a small track and soccer field, sports courts, landscaping, parking, and circulation areas.

The project's cost is estimated at $5 million.

Community relations

GAIS officials have been meeting with North Fair Oaks Council members and county Supervisor Warren Slocum, whose district the property lies in, since last spring "to discuss our plans and hear their feedback," Mr. Liechti said in the letter.

Earlier this month, the school met with residents in a county-mandated "pre-application workshop," and on Feb. 10, with members of the Fair Oaks Beautification Association (FOBA) as part of the school's effort to hear from residents.

"GAIS did an excellent job in reaching out to the community," resident Kyle Barriger told the Almanac. Mr. Barriger, who attended both recent meetings and is a member of FOBA, said residents' chief concerns centered on increased traffic and noise, and on who will have access to the play fields when school is not in session. Residents want to make sure there's not unlimited access to the fields, he said, and have been assured by school officials that they don't intend to open the fields to organized sports — a statement echoed by Mr. Liechti in an interview with the Almanac.

Mr. Barriger said he can't speak for other FOBA members, but observed that GAIS appears willing to be a good neighbor. "I think that what I and most (residents) are looking for is a genuine partnership between the German-American School and the community," he said.

Mr. Liechti told the Almanac that the school will use a traffic management plan similar to the one now in place at its current campus in the Willows. It includes staggered schedules, a carpooling system used by 50 percent of parents, parent monitoring of motorists dropping off and picking up their kids, and other strategies. "We have a really good track record" in the Willows neighborhood, he said.

The school is conducting a traffic study in the Edison Way area to better address the issue. At this point, he said, it's unknown whether the school will generate more traffic than current tenants of the three buildings, which he numbered at 40. Mr. Liechti said he wants to form a traffic committee that includes neighbors of the new school.

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