By Staff Writers Gloria Chang, Julia Park, Ansh Patel, Bethany Woo & Richard Chenyu Zhou
Robson Homes, in partnership with FUSD, has proposed a new two lane drop-off loop on the MSJ campus along Mission Boulevard in order to relieve traffic congestion. The drop-off loop is one aspect of the Orchard Heights/Hobbs Residential Project, which will include the construction of 55 new single-family homes in the hills on the opposite side of Mission Boulevard from MSJ.
Robson Homes has volunteered to pay an amount equal to the Level 3 developer fee rate, a fee school districts can charge to help cover the cost of providing facilities for new students brought in by the residential development. This fee — $16.38 per square foot of new residential development — is almost twice the amount required by the state and will be paid to FUSD. Robson Homes has additionally volunteered to build the drop-off loop to alleviate traffic potentially caused by the new neighborhood. During a January 26 hearing, a planning commission presented the housing plan and recommended approval. The Fremont City Council, which consists of five members including the mayor, will vote to approve or reject the plan on March 14.
Update (March 8, 2017) based on a meeting between Robson Homes, MSJ, and FUSD held on Friday, Feb. 17, 2017:
The new drop-off loop would be located near the athletic field and circle in front of classroom buildings on the north side of campus, between the MSJ garden and the school’s dumpsters. The two-lane drop-off design would allow northbound traffic to enter the loop. The loop would include a bypass lane on the left side, and a second lane — which is normally on the curbside — that has a shoulder on the side for drop-offs. Robson Homes Project Manager Jake Lavin mentioned that the study predicted the loop would be capable of holding 40 cars, and if kept in motion, could cycle through 200 cars in 20 minutes. (The Friday, March 3, 2017 issue incorrectly stated that the drop-off loop would accommodate 200 cars at once.) This amount is a significant portion of the 351 vehicles the Smoke Signal counted that turned right at Palm Avenue, on February 10 from 7:30 a.m. to 8:10 a.m. According to the latest design, the loop would be 600 feet in length, but Robson Homes is planning to extend it so that it will line up across the street from Mission Ridge Court. The median at that intersection between Mission Ridge Court and Mission Boulevard is being evaluated to determine whether or not it should be replaced with a traffic signal. “[It would be] geometrically designed so in the future it lines up with the street across [and make] a true four-way intersection,” said W-Trans Engineer Mark Spencer.
The general opinion of MSJ administrators is that the new drop-off lane is overall a beneficial development for the school. However, on Friday, Feb. 17, Principal Zack Larsen, Assistant Principal Jeana Nightengale, World History Teacher Jason Cain, FUSD Superintendent Jim Morris, Campus Supervisors Brandi Speier and Janice Wren, ASB President Senior Shiv Salwan, SURFBoardE Chairman Junior Brendan Wu, Safety Committee Student Representative Kevin Wu, and other members of the Safety Committee met with Lavin and Spencer to discuss concerns about the proposed drop-off lane.
One issue brought up was that the northbound left turn into the loop would be overwhelmed by the number of cars traveling south on Mission Boulevard. Several administrators and safety committee representatives were concerned that the distance between the loop and Palm Avenue was too short, and that this would prevent parents from being able to merge into lanes farther to the left on Mission Boulevard, forcing them to continue in the lane turning right onto Palm Avenue.
Additionally, the new drop-off lane would require parent volunteers or members of the safety patrol to keep the flow of vehicles moving throughout the loop. Speier also brought up the issues of allowing school service trucks to deliver supplies and firetrucks to have access to the school campus. The construction may include building new sidewalks to prevent student pedestrians from walking through the service exits.
Based on a Smoke Signal online survey, 67 percent of students responded that Palm Avenue has the most traffic around MSJ. Brendan Wu said that the group aims to focus on improving the Palm Avenue intersection. Parent drivers also often turn north onto Mission Boulevard after dropping off students at Mission Cielo Avenue. However, this cuts off incoming traffic turning north from Palm Avenue onto Mission Boulevard. One way to address the resulting congestion that was mentioned by Lavin, was to work with California Department of Transportation and set U-turn restrictions during specific time frames — for example, from 7:50 a.m. to 8:15 a.m..
Currently, traffic around MSJ increases dramatically immediately before and after school hours. “Really, the major backups that we see don’t last that long,” said Principal Zack Larsen. “It’s a short span of time where it gets really crowded.” According to a transportation study conducted by W-Trans and provided by Robson Homes, the new houses will add 27 U-turns at Palm Avenue in the morning hours, a tiny fraction of the many hundreds of cars that currently travel down Mission Boulevard. Furthermore, the new loop will reduce other traffic-induced problems such as pulling illegally into the Mission Boulevard bike lane to drop off students. Fremont City Associate Planner Bill Roth said, “This is the applicant voluntarily going above and beyond to work with the school district on the drop-off … there’s a lot of concern about making sure the school district is doing okay and making sure that all the people who live there are going to be happy with the project.”
This story will continue to be updated as new information comes in.
The Smoke Signal interviewed Principal Zack Larsen about the potential impacts of the drop off lane. The full transcript of the interview is included below.
The Smoke Signal: Is adding a second drop-off loop a proposal that MSJ has been considering for a long period of time, or only a recent suggestion? If it was a recent or unplanned decision, what factors led to the proposal?
Zack Larsen: When we did a study of our facilities about three years ago and looked at what we would need here to improve the facilities, a drop-off lane either in the front of the school, the side of the school, or in the existing parking lot somehow, all came up as ideas. When we got community feedback and staff feedback, we found that doing [a drop-off lane] in the parking lot would be prohibitive because we have a lot of kids walking across the parking lot, so directing more parents into the parking lot along with students and staff in the morning might not work. Then [for] the front of the school idea, the plans that we came up with were demolishing the horseshoe and creating a driveway that went in front of the N-Wing. Mission is known for the horseshoe and we do Multicultural Week there and lots of things,so that was not something people thought was a good idea. [Robson Homes] proposed] this driveway to the school district on campus and the school board said great, and so that’s where it is right now.
SS: Do you view traffic near MSJ as a prominent problem?
ZL: I think anything we can do to alleviate congestion in the morning and afternoon would be helpful for students and families, and also just generally the city in terms of traffic patterns. Really the major backups that we see don’t last that long; it’s from like 7:45 [a.m.] to 8:03 [a.m.] or so, and then it calms down; so it’s a short span of time where it gets really, really, crowded because the majority of people come right before school. After school there’s a period of time where it’s very, very, crowded; I’ve lived in Fremont and in this area my whole life so I can say that I’ve never seen so much traffic on Fremont’s roads in my life, but there’s more people in the Bay Area, [and] more people commuting and driving around in Fremont. Some might say the metering lights to get on I-680 are backing up traffic. You’ve got apps like Waze that direct people through Fremont. I have never seen so much traffic on Palm Avenue, so I think traffic is a problem.
SS: In your opinion, will the new drop-off lane proposed by Robson Homes improve traffic congestion? Could it be a permanent or long-term solution?
ZL: The theory will be that it would reduce the traffic on Palm Avenue. It would reduce the traffic that normally turns right on Palm. I would like to see the summary study that Ms. Moore references … I’m not a traffic engineer, but I think it would [help]. It would be permanent and if it works it can be a long-term solution.
SS: Are there any potential issues or negative effects of constructing a second drop-off loop? If so, what are they? If not, what are benefits of this project?
ZL: No, I don’t see any, but I would want to look at the details of the plan. I am an advocate of the environment, and that area [where the drop-off will be located] has large pine trees, and I would hate to see us lose any of the trees. I would also want to see the plans to see how close the driveway is to the buildings. Also, in the area, there are five or six dumpsters there. Are we going to have [parents drop off students] in front of dumpsters? Or is there some sort of screen-like vegetation or a fence? It’s not pleasant to come to school and see dumpsters. Is it safe? We also need to provide supervision to ensure student safety since it is a busy road.
SS: Has the MSJ population declined over the last five years? If so, how much has the population dropped? What are reasons for this decline?
ZL: Minimally. We [the MSJ administration] get enrollment projections from the Associate Superintendent of Business Service. When we see elementary forecasts decline in enrollment, we will see that bubble or lack of bubble as the years progress. It is interesting. While we have fewer students, we always want more students. The [number of] students we have is a nice number. Our classes are not overcrowded and we are able to use facilities in different ways. There is a little more flexibility with how we use classrooms. There is a silver lining when we have less kids. At times when MSJ had 2,500 students, teachers didn’t have their own classrooms and teachers had to roam to other classrooms. Classes were packed with kids — 35, 36, or 37 in some cases. That gets messy with a population that large. I would certainly not turn anyone away from our school. I take the number we have [and] enjoy the benefits of a smaller population. I don’t know what the major reasons are. I have heard theories that more families after [their] seniors graduating are not selling their home because it is a safe place to keep money invested in real estate [sic]. Homes in this area tend to retain their value — less turnover in real estate, less homes available. As far as a concrete reason, I don’t know. The other possibility is it is expensive to buy a home here. It’s tough for some families to get a home and for their students to go to school in this attendance area.
Photo Courtesy Robson Homes