Wednesday, February 01, 2006 | Mission Valley: The Unplanned Neighborhood

Editor’s Note: This is part three of a three-part series examining the intriguing past, present and future of Mission Valley. This is also the first in an occasional series evaluating the issues facing the region’s different neighborhoods.

Every morning, at 7 a.m., Evelyn Delgado drives her son, Edward, from their home in Mission Valley up the hill to Benito Juarez Elementary School in Serra Mesa. For Edward, riding a bike is not an option. It’s a five-mile uphill ride and a treacherous scramble across two major freeways.

Edward would catch the bus, but there isn’t one to his school. Nor is there a school in Mission Valley, despite the fact that the population of the neighborhood has swelled 41.8 percent since 2000 to almost 18,000 people.

Parents from the valley have a couple of choices. Like Delgado, they can drive their children up one of the valley’s slopes every morning to deliver them to one of the schools in nearby neighborhoods, or they can put their children on board a bus to a school in some other corner of San Diego.

Either way, it’s a choice that local parents are tired of making, and Mission Valley’s bulging residential community has become united in its request that the school district build them a school, now.

The neighborhood that has been reborn several times over the last 100 years is undergoing another metamorphosis into a bustling residential area. Since 1996, nearly 2,000 condo units have been built in Mission Valley, and the influx of high-density residential development shows no sign of abating.

But the community didn’t have a development blueprint until 1985, so such pedestrian concerns as park land, fire stations and schools have all been ignored until recently.

“Absolutely, I believe there should be schools in Mission Valley,” said Glenn Hillegas, principal of Construction Tech Academy in Linda Vista, one of the high schools that take in Mission Valley students. “The schools are far away and it’s very inconvenient and unsafe for kids to ride their bicycles to school.”

Officials at the San Diego Unified School District argue that Mission Valley simply doesn’t have enough children to warrant building a school. They said their demographic models don’t yet tell them that the neighborhood has reached a “tipping point” that would require building them a school.

But population statistics project a sharp increase in the population of Mission Valley over the next 25 years. Figures from the San Diego Association of Governments show Mission Valley’s population set to more than double by 2030, to a total of 28,478 people. School-age population is forecast to double in that time.

If the school district is wrong in their predictions, it won’t be the first time.

The last part of San Diego to see a similar development spurt was Scripps Ranch, where schools have been over-crowded for a number of years and the school board is still struggling to meet demand.

When developers started digging in Scripps Ranch in the mid-1990s, parents like Joyce Berzle began to worry.

The vast swathes of new housing that had begun to engulf Berzle’s hometown brought with them thousands of school-age children. Berzle, a former chairwoman of the Scripps Ranch School Committee, said that for a few critical years, the school district completely failed to plan for those children, leaving local schools overcrowded and under-funded.

“They built all these houses, a huge amount of houses, and they just never planned for the schools,” said Berzle, a mother of two school-age boys in Scripps Ranch.

Roy McPhail, supervising facilities manager at the San Diego Unified School District, admitted that things went wrong in Scripps Ranch. However, he said the district’s sampling and forecasting models have become more sophisticated since the problems that occurred 10 years ago.

Critics aren’t so sure.

“We’re setting ourselves up for a situation where that absolutely will happen again (in Mission Valley) and it will be worse,” said Tom Mullaney of the grass-roots urban planning group Friends of San Diego. “The school district uses a slavish adherence to previous figures without really understanding changing demographics.”

To evaluate whether an area needs a new school, the school district considers a number of different factors.

The district’s demographers collect data from developers on the type of building going on in an area. They establish how many of each type of home – be it one-bedroom condos or four-bedroom townhouses – are planned within an area.

Next, the demographers look at other parts of the district to establish how many students the different types of development are likely to yield. They look, for example, at how many students would be likely to live in a development of 100 two-bedroom condos or a tract of 50 three-bedroom detached houses.

By cross referencing these averages with the proposed development in an area, the district estimates how many students are likely to move in once the development is completed.

But, because the school district relies on “sampling” areas that are already built up to establish the number of children likely to inhabit a neighborhood, critics argue that its figures are not as accurate as they could be. Such samples do not take into account other factors that might influence the number of children likely to move into a new development.

For example, five years ago, few young couples with children in San Diego would have considered moving into a condo as their first home. These days, with sky-high home prices around the county, a condo could be the only option for many local young families.

“Because of the big boom in prices, that’s where a lot of people are starting, including some families,” said Alan Gin, professor of economics at the University of San Diego’s Burnham-Moores Center for Real Estate.

Mission Valley is condo city.

“It is probably about 90-percent condos,” said Peter Toner, a San Diego Realtor, adding that in January there were only five detached homes for sale in Mission Valley, compared to 168 condos for sale.

One of the developers working in Mission valley has seemingly taken the issue of schools to heart. Tom Sudberry, is president of Sudberry Properties Inc. and is planning Quarry Falls, a 230-acre mixed-use development in Mission Valley. He said he’s constantly hearing from Mission Valley residents that the neighborhood needs a school.

Sudberry said he’s trying to push through a K-8 school as part of the development. The school board told him the area doesn’t need a school, he said, so he’s looking at the option of building a charter school instead.

“If we’re listening to the community, and the community’s suggesting to us that we explore this idea of a school, we’re going to follow up on that idea,” Sudberry said.

Apart from the argument that there aren’t enough children in Mission Valley to warrant a school, the school district also points to the fact that the nearby neighborhoods of Serra Mesa and Kearny Mesa have six elementary schools, one middle school and one high school (that has now been split up into four specialty schools). Representatives at two of these schools said that the schools were not overly crowded, and said that the children from Mission Valley received a good education.

But Mission Valley parents said that’s not the point. Delgado said there is a definite “segregation” at her son’s elementary school between the kids from Serra Mesa and the kids from Mission Valley. The Mission Valley children stick together, she said, and aren’t really accepted into the fold as part of the community.

Sally Cox, who lives with her 12 year-old daughter Emma in one of Mission Valley’s newest condo developments, has a job as a software trainer that takes her all over the country. She and Emma have moved 10 times in the last 11 years, and the single mother said there has been a marked difference between the communities she has lived in that had their own school and those that did not.

“I like it better when the school is in the community, because I like the children who she goes to school with living in our neighborhood,” Cox said. “She does have some friends who live in the neighborhood around the school, but I have to drive her there.”

Donna Frye, city councilwoman for District 6, which encompasses Mission Valley, said a school is imperative to turn Mission Valley into a legitimate residential community.

“It fosters a better community environment,” Frye said. “It allows people to associate with their neighbors on a daily basis and in a safe environment.”

“It has a social importance for establishing a strong, close-knit community,” she added.

At the very least, Mission Valley students need a bus service to the nearby schools, said Hillegas, the principal in Serra Mesa.

The nearest schools to Mission Valley are simply cut off from students who want to travel there under their own steam. The nearby roads are too dangerous for children to cross, Hillegas said, and the time has come to reevaluate whether Mission Valley’s children need a bus service to and from school.

“Five miles is not a big deal on a mountain bike, but you try peddling up that hill, from the stadium up to Serra Mesa, that would be pretty hard,” Hillegas said.

If there is to be a school in Mission Valley, it seems it will only be as part of a development, and is likely to be a charter school. Lisa Gonzales, Frye’s representative for Mission Valley, said that’s simply not fair for her constituents, considering how much money the school board is making out of developers in Mission Valley.

“The developers are paying the schools fees,” said Gonzales, “I think it’s $10 million that one developer had to give.”

“The money’s going someplace,” she added.

Erika Wilgenburg, a spokeswoman for the school district, explained that the fees the district collects from developers are not necessarily used in the area where they were collected. Instead, they are used throughout the school district.

Besides, Wilgenburg said, the amount of money collected from developers is nowhere near enough to build schools with, and is usually used for other purposes such as buying furniture for classrooms or providing temporary trailers for classrooms.

Gonzales doesn’t agree. She said considering the amount of development flowing into Mission Valley, and the amount of money consequently flowing into the coffers of the school board, there’s no reason why the residents of Mission Valley shouldn’t see the benefits of that money.

“One development is not going to build a school,” Gonzales said, “but if you add all the money together, sure it would build us a school.”

– Sam Hodgson contributed to this report.

Please contact Will Carless directly at

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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