September 29, 2005 - From the September, 2005 issue

The Planning Center Instructs Schools On How & Where to Build

A complex web of building and environmental regulations faces anyone trying to build a new public school in California. Recognizing that districts need guidance and expertise, The Planning Center of Orange County has developed school consulting as one of its specialities. Dwayne Mears heads The Planning Center's school consulting practice, and he shared with TPR his perspective on siting and constructing safe, sound campuses for California's children.

Dwayne Mears

The Planning Center is involved as planners in a myriad of project in Southern California, but one specialty is assisting school districts with planning for K-12 schools. What makes school facilities planning unique; what are the challenges?

The Planning Center has specialized in school planning for the past 20 years and has worked with more than 60 school districts statewide. During this time, we have certainly learned the many challenges facing school districts in urban, suburban and rural locations. The biggest challenges for urban districts, such as L.A. Unified, are finding vacant sites for purchase and meeting the California Department of Education's stringent siting requirements. For example, school sites must maintain certain distances from high-pressure pipelines, railroad tracks, power lines, airport runways, freeways and toxic emissions sources. On the other hand, suburban and rural districts deal with the lack of supporting infrastructure, such as roads, sewer and water lines and transit service. In addition, concerns about pesticide application at nearby farms, pollution from dairies and similar uses, sensitive biological habitats and historic resources, can make it very difficult to find suitable school sites.

Give us a full scope of what The Planning Center does, its range of services, and what you're most proud of.

The Planning Center's early years go back to large-scale community planning. One of our original partners here dealt with the Irvine Ranch before the City of Irvine was incorporated. When the firm was formed in 1975 they focused on what they knew best, large scale planning. Since then we've grown, and our services are much broader, now ranging from regional policy planning to detailed site planning and environmental studies. We are involved in planning at all levels, from planning entire new cities all the way down to infill projects in areas like Anaheim's Platinum Triangle, to very dense urban settings within transforming suburban areas. What am I most proud of? I think the reason I'm at The Planning Center is that we bring all these different issues and talents together. We see cities as systems, and we see ourselves as system-integrators. We deal with infrastructure, market conditions, regional policy considerations, environmental issues, aesthetics, public safety, housing, housing costs, jobs, etc. It makes for a very exciting environment here at The Planning Center.

Re: your K-12 school planning, New Schools Better Neighborhoods and other like groups promote the many educational and community advantages of siting and designing neighborhood-centered, community schools that encourage co-location and joint use to build not only new schools but also healthy neighborhoods. Given the state bureaucratic planning guidelines that dictate how schools are built, what are the challenges which must be overcome if your clients wish to embrace stakeholder collaborative planning of smaller, joint-use, neighborhood anchoring school complexes?

There can be big challenges in bringing different entities together, which often have divergent interests and in some cases, are vying for the same property. School districts desperately need new school sites to relieve overcrowding, while cities want more income-generating property. The problem originates in how we fund municipal services. Retail development generates sales tax dollars and other high-end development generates property taxes. When municipalities seek to increase their revenues, it can drive them to compete for targeted school sites. There are some positive examples where school districts and municipalities have cooperated on joint use facilities. We have been involved in some exciting and successful projects in both Los Angeles and Pomona, where districts and municipalities have partnered to develop sites that comprise a school, other public services, adult education, park facilities and even housing. But, because many jurisdictions have limited funding sources, their hands are often tied by the urgent need to satisfy their individual constituencies. I'm sure most would prefer to take the longer view, but the difficulties involved have limited the real success stories.

Describe the scope of the work assigned to The Planning Center by these schools districts? What are you asked to do, and what resources do you bring to the commission?

Generally, we are hired to satisfy environmental side and regulatory-clearance requirements. Of course, all jurisdictions have to deal with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and school districts are no different. The additional challenge with schools is that they have to meet certain siting criteria established by the California Department of Education (CDE). For example, we have to look at any railroad tracks that are within 1,500 feet of a school site; we have to look at pipelines in the same area; we have to look at pollution sources within a quarter-mile; we have to look at electromagnetic field (EMF) exposure coming from power lines, etc. So in addition to the typical environmental issues we have with other kinds of projects, there are additional considerations that make it very difficult to find a suitable school site, especially in Southern California.

I want to dig a little deeper here, Dwayne. It's called The Planning Center, and we are addressing the planning, programming, siting, and design of what is now approximately $60 billion worth of school projects throughout the state. How much planning – I'm not talking about regulatory approvals – how much actual site planning and programming talent goes into master planning our new schools?

Like planning communities for an Irvine Co., we prefer to be brought into the school planning process in the early stages so that we can deal effectively with jurisdictions and bring other components together to create a community-based school. To make this happen, school districts have to have the necessary funding and be creative and patient. Unfortunately, the many pressures involved in housing children and having a certain number of classrooms open in time for the start of a new school year, often preclude the creative process from going forward. In such situations or in the cases where school districts have already established the site they are looking for, we are brought in on a more limited level to evaluate whether we can get the site approved.

TPR carried an interview with former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg last month. As the author of $25 billion in state school bonds, he now laments the way LAUSD's board and facilities staff have failed to aggressively embrace the value of co-location and joint use, of educational facilities being the delivery mechanism by design of pre K, after-school and recreation and health programs for the neighborhoods served by the schools. Are his frustrations misplaced? Is there any merit to his argument?

I read the article and there are some examples-Gratts Primary Center and Early Childhood Education Center, for example. The school was first envisioned through a master plan study by the City of Los Angeles in collaboration with LAUSD, a Community of Friends (ACOF) and the New Schools Better Neighborhoods Community Partnership, which resulted in an overall massing scheme for the school and affordable housing projects. As such, the school was designed so that the playgrounds could be used after hours for community purposes under a joint use agreement. LAUSD has also agreed to explore options of providing limited access to the school's open space, library, multi-purpose room and parking structure for community use.


But, I would certainly hope that we could do more. It's a huge challenge. But I do share his sentiments that we're spending large amounts of money on new schools, and it's a good question as to whether we're going to be proud of most of what we've done 30 years from now.

To prepare an EIR for a school you have to take into account CEQA, the Education Code, the California Code of Regulations. Can you talk about how these all work together? Do they result in safer, better schools, or do they simply delay the process and add costs?

They certainly add cost to the process and they can cause significant delays as well. My view is that CEQA should be understood as our broadest environmental law and then superimposed on top of that we have the California Code of Regulations and the Education Code. What we try to do at our firm is really look at each project holistically and do the technical studies in a phased approach so that we're not spending money unnecessarily. If we find a site that's flawed, we cross it off the list and move on. In our practice we integrate everything so that the final package we put together for school districts incorporates all of these requirements. Our intent is to minimize the amount of time it takes to get through the process and never spend more money on it than we need to. I'm very proud when we're invited to the opening of a new school we've been involved in.

The Planning Center, and you specifically, teach classes and publish guides that instruct school districts in how to comply with the above regulations. Why do school districts need such instruction? Why does the expertise not lie with them in the first place?

It's amazing how specialized this work is. The reason we teach classes and publish guides is that most school districts have limited staff and do not have this type of expertise in-house. Most districts have only a facility planner or two, and they generally do not have the expertise needed to get through this process. It is incredibly complex. So many specialties need to be brought together to conduct all these different technical studies that, with a few exceptions, it's nearly impossible for a school district to do it these days.. Even within the environmental consulting field, many of the consultants don't have the expertise, and they need to be trained so that they can deal with all the issues so they can integrate them and not stub their toes on a project. Quite often we get a call from a school district official who says, "we've done the CEQA work, we've done these other technical studies, now the Department of Education won't approve us because we forgot to do the rail risk study." In other words, they have a site that's within 1,500 feet of railroad tracks and they haven't done the study, so now they're stuck. That happens quite often because not everybody knows how to navigate this system.

Please compare and contrast how colleges and universities do their facility planning versus how K-12 districts do theirs. Is it not true that most colleges spend a lot of time on the planning and enlisting the viewpoints of their faculty and stakeholders. School districts seem to be driven by state regulations and rules and funding rules that have only been modestly refreshed every ten years since the 1950s. What's the prospect of really planning with constituents in mind a new 21st century school complex that takes into account what education knows about how people learn?

That's an excellent question, which takes me back to the point of, ultimately, 30 years from now when I'm retired, how proud am I going to be of the schools we've built. And I think it's an interesting observation about how universities may be better planners than K-12. I think it's because colleges often have larger facility staffs and do not have the problem of immediacy. If you look at some of the school districts-I understand, that a few years back, Santa Ana Unified had more kids in portables than all of Irvine Unified's school population; that's an enormous problem. So from Santa Ana Unified's perspective, how do you deal with these long-term planning issues when you have all these kids stuck in very overcrowded schools? It makes for an enormous challenge. It's a timing issue and a resource issue. School districts normally do not have the money to do the necessary up-front planning. We would love to see more long-term perspective from districts on how to best build new schools. And, even beyond that, we would like to see plans for what do with excess schools when districts lose student population sometime in the future. How do we recycle these schools? That is certainly something worth thinking about.

In an op-ed piece this past month in the L.A. Times, Marc Litchman made the point that Long Beach and other relatively smaller school districts do a faster, better job than the largest school district in the state, LAUSD, in their school construction. Does size make a difference?

I think it does, but there's sort of a range. You have very large school districts such as LAUSD, which is so large and their jurisdiction so urbanized that their problems are magnified significantly. You then have middle size school districts that have some expertise in-house and can perhaps better manage the process. Then you have very small school districts where the superintendent is also the principal, as well as the facility planner. At that level, they really can't deal with construction issues because they have so many other things to focus on, including educating the kids. Our clients differ tremendously in terms of what they look for and the kinds of services they need from a consultant.

How come it's so hard for school districts to holistically plan the way you say The Planning Center likes to plan?

It takes the political will to do it. There are some great examples of some visionary people, people who are creative and are willing to push the envelope. I think of Patrick Leier at Pomona Unified, who has done tremendous things. What I would like to emphasize and encourage people to do is to move in that direction.


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