By Staff Writers Amber Lee, Bethany Woo & Vicki Xu
Housing developments in Fremont have generated much discussion, especially in the recent race for Fremont mayor. In this investigative report, the Smoke Signal compiled information about current and upcoming housing developments in Fremont, and gathered opinions from FUSD Board Member Michele Berke, MSJ Principal Zack Larsen, Fremont Mayor-Elect Lily Mei, Planning Commission Chair Raj Salwan, and SURFBoardE Representatives Sophomore Anuja Konda, Junior Raymond Yin, and Junior Brendan Wu on the potential benefits and negative effects these developments will have for MSJ students.
“I think the developers that move into a community and make a great deal of money off of the sales of their homes have a responsibility to give back to the community in the form of schools and/or parks for residents to enjoy.”
— Principal Zack Larsen
At the start of the development approval process, a developer submits a proposal to the city’s Planning Department to be reviewed. The department works with the developer to revise the development application. From there, the proposal can be approved in different ways. Projects with fewer housing units are approved by the Planning Department’s Zoning Administrator. Larger developments that may change the city’s general land use plan go to the Planning Commission, which recommends approval or rejection of the application. However, the City Council has the final say on whether to accept the development application.
It is worth noting that the city government is legally restricted from considering how schools will accommodate the new students when approving new developments. Senate Bill 50 (SB50), proposed by Senator Marian Walters and passed in 1998, limits the ability of cities and counties to consider impact on schools as a condition that goes into approving new development. SB50 does authorize school districts to levy significantly higher developer fees, which developers must contribute to schools whenever their construction is approved. Current developer fees in Fremont are $8.19 per square foot for residential buildings and $0.56 per square foot for commercial buildings. Education funding is generally considered a three-legged stool: the State of CA, developers, and local residents all contribute funds. Most funds are provided by the State of CA, and Berke said, “The idea behind SB50 was that developers are kicking in developer fees, so they shouldn’t discuss the impact on schools; they’re doing their part already to support the school district.”
According to Berke, the American High School attendance area is most highly overcrowded. The Irvington High School and Washington High School attendance areas are also receiving steady, continuous growth. In comparison, the MSJ attendance area is relatively less affected by the risk of overcrowding. “Mission is in fairly good shape,” Berke said. “Projections show slow growth but not overcrowding for the next 10 years.”
Current and Future Developments
The following table displays the major projects and developments in the MSJ area that are being processed, currently underway, or have been recently completed. This list is comprised of housing developments, some of which will introduce new students into the MSJ attendance area. The location, number of new houses, status, and the potential number of new students are provided for each project.
The interactive map below shows the locations of the elementary, junior high, and high schools relative to local housing developments. Scroll over the map to view summaries of each project.
Arguments For Housing Development
“The development has also brought in a nice, rich variety and diversity of people into a community, and I think that that serves to strengthen a community and bring with it resources. We just have to make sure that we can balance the additional people with the demands for infrastructure.”
— Principal Zack Larsen
Proponents of housing developments argue that such construction would create jobs and boost the city’s economy. They also believe that developments would effectively increase housing affordability by alleviating some of the demand for Bay Area housing, which has caused prices to skyrocket in recent years. Due to the increasing job opportunities and businesses in Fremont, housing development would allow people to live closer to their workplaces instead of having to commute long distances. In addition, Salwan said that a recent trend is that developers are “trying to make smaller units … called affordability by design,” which will decrease the cost of that housing type.
Efficient housing development could be a solution for traffic in Fremont’s streets. The idea of “smart growth,” also known as transit-oriented development, where developers focus on placing projects close to public transport systems in Fremont such as BART, may “actually reduce the impact of traffic,” said Berke. Other benefits from development include an improved economy and an increase in the number of jobs. Larsen said, “… the development has also brought in a nice, rich variety and diversity of people into a community, and I think that that serves to strengthen a community and bring with it resources. We just have to make sure that we can balance the additional people with the demands for infrastructure.”
Arguments Against Housing Development
“When my daughter was at Gomes, it was almost 900 kids, and that meant eating lunch in four shifts … you may be eating lunch as early as 10:30 or 10:45, or as late as 1:00. So these types of things are not always something people recognize as an issue that relates to the community.”
— Fremont Mayor-Elect Lily Mei
The recent spike in housing developments has generated much concern among residents who believe such ventures result in traffic congestion, noise pollution, and overcrowded schools. Yin said, “I think there should be restrictions on housing because more students is not always better if we don’t have the proper facilities to maintain the same quality of education.” While discussing the amount of time taken to build new facilities to accommodate the influx of students, Mei said, “When my daughter was at Gomes, it was almost 900 kids, and that meant eating lunch in four shifts … you may be eating lunch as early as 10:30 or 10:45, or as late as 1:00. So these types of things are not always something people recognize as an issue that relates to the community.” In addition, Alice Lu, an MSJ attendance area resident, began a Change.org petition on December 10, protesting the development-induced traffic congestion on Mission Boulevard. The petition, titled “Please help our kids be safe & stop further traffic congestions on Mission Blvd near MSJ,” is addressed to the Fremont City Council and has garnered more than 500 signatures as of December 16.
Other opponents also point to loss of open green space, a concern regarding aesthetics. A few years ago, a proposal to build at Kimber Park, located within the MSJ attendance area, was rejected by residents who wished to preserve the recreational quality the area was originally intended for.
Case Overview: Patterson Ranch
The recent Patterson Ranch housing development sparked controversy when the developers, Fremont Patterson Ranch Limited Liability Company (LLC) and Brookfield Bellaire LLC, sued FUSD in October 2015 for refusing to assign the homes to schools in the Fremont district. The FUSD Board of Education had voted in September 2015 to keep Patterson Ranch unassigned because the schools in the corresponding attendance area were overcrowded. At that time, the developers had only consented to pay the minimum required developer fees, $5.70 per square foot, which cumulatively amounted to $7.8 million. However, according to FUSD, this was not enough to build new classrooms for the large number of students projected to enter the school district from Patterson Ranch. Later on, in July 2016, FUSD settled a deal in which the developers agreed to pay an additional $7.5 million to the school district, so that local Fremont schools could accommodate new students from Patterson Ranch. Regarding this case, Larsen said, “I think the developers that move into a community and make a great deal of money off of the sales of their homes have a responsibility to give back to the community in the form of schools and/or parks for residents to enjoy.”
An instance where developments had a positive effect was the construction of a new elementary school and park in addition to housing in the Warm Springs area. The developers set aside nine acres of land for this project — five for a new elementary school and four for a park that would be used by the school on the weekdays, and by the city on the weekends. Although the developers were not legally required to build a new school, its construction is hoped to prevent overcrowding in neighboring schools while still allowing developers to construct and sell houses.
The Situation With MSJ
“As far as MSJ goes, there’s more space in the MSJ attendance area. It hasn’t always been this way. 10 to 15 years ago, MSJ was the overcrowded one. Really it just reflects changing demographics in Fremont, and how they buy and sell, like to older people or families with young children.”
— FUSD Board Member Michele Berke
Current and approaching plans for development are affecting the student population at MSJ. For example, the Mission Creek Tract project and the Darrow Farm project — both within the MSJ attendance area — have recently been completed, and many of the new houses have already sold. Additionally, there are 12 other projects expected to be finished in 2017 within the MSJ attendance area, ranging from three to 158 new units. Most of these developments are residential and will likely bring in more students. Information about the residential developments is depicted on the interactive map.
On the subject of overcrowding, Konda said, “I personally do not feel like MSJ is overcrowded. In my classes each student has a desk to sit at and has adequate classroom supplies … and I don’t feel suffocated by other students.” Even so, in relation to whether SURFBoardE will address this issue, Wu said, “In the coming weeks we will be discussing what topics are of the utmost importance to the students so that we can present it to the school board in an effort to create change … We understand that overcrowding is to blame for many of the issues that students are concerned about, and may very soon choose to tackle this issue in the coming months.”
One way to find a balance between demand and supply could be lower growth over a longer period of time, so changes could be accommodated more smoothly, as suggested by Salwan. Another possibility is to increase bonds. The State Bond passed in November gave around $150 million, and the Measure “E” Bond gave around $650 million to Fremont. These bonds will go into maintaining and improving school infrastructure and technology.
Mei and Salwan both emphasized the significance of communication and cooperation in discussion. Salwan said that citizens must play a “proactive role versus a reactive role” and called for all voices and opinions to be heard. Mei said, “You may not, as a developer, be able to build an entire school… but maybe [you] could help out multi-purpose rooms or science classrooms or technology rooms.” She also stated that continual dialogue would help the city, school district, and developers plan and work together better to meet the needs of Fremont’s residents.
Actions Citizens Can Take
A variety of options are available to citizens who wish to make their voices heard regarding housing developments. Resources to stay informed include promotion emails, notifications by the city, public City Council meetings, and online city halls. The FUSD Board of Education meetings are a platform for students to bring their concerns and suggestions. In addition, all development plans to be approved have a period open for the public to comment; citizens may participate in the hearing process. By playing a proactive role and giving feedback on plans, community members can help shape the projects into more satisfactory structures.
Looking to the Future
“I strongly encourage you to ask us your questions … and work together to help us solve these problems … [since] coming up with solutions is the best way we can help to keep moving forward.”
— Fremont Mayor-Elect Lily Mei
As demand for housing in the Bay Area rises, Fremont will continue to experience growth. Commenting on how the skyline of Fremont might change in the future, Salwan said, “We like to say we are going strategically urban … We’re never going to be San Francisco, we’re never going to be Berkeley, but maybe we’ll have a nice downtown, four or five stories, maybe a couple that are larger.” He also stated that the rate of development would begin to slow.
To mitigate the effects of new developments, city officials are considering more ways to encourage sustained growth that gives back to the Fremont community. Such avenues include building closer to transit centers and allowing developers to build for schools, such as classrooms and multipurpose rooms, as well as residences.
Graphic by robsonhomes.com