The Loma Prietan - September/October 2011

Pave Paradise, Put up a Parking Lot

by Angelo Lanham

The gardens on the west and south, barring the redwood tree, are slated for demolition. Photo: Snigdha Sen, San Mateo Patch
The gardens on the west and south, barring the redwood tree, are slated for demolition. Photo: Snigdha Sen, San Mateo Patch

When news broke of College of San Mateo’s plans to raze a portion of its garden to build a parking lot, it pretty much asked environmentalists to quote Joni Mitchell. An informal group of students calling themselves the Friends of the San Mateo Gardens has filed suit in an effort to halt this attempt to pave paradise.

“I consider myself a rigid environmentalist, and I believe the administration has not followed the rules set forth by the CEQ [California Environmental Quality] Act,” said Shawn Kann, who acted as spokesperson for the movement, according to an article in the San Mateo Patch.

The Chapter has backed the group. In a letter addressed to College President Michael Claire, Chapter Conservation Committee Chair Mike Ferreira stated that an “apparent discrepancy between the Initial Study and the current plan to knock down Building 20 is that the study says that the building is to be 'renovated,' not demolished. That is a significant change to the plan, which at a minimum should have been updated to reflect this change, as well as the addition of the parking lot.”  The letter goes on to cite the “fervor – yet polite demeanor – of those young people for preserving something they felt to be of educational value.”

The plan to raze Building 20 and part of the garden is a modification of a larger, overarching plan that was put together in 2006, said Barbara Christensen, spokesperson for the college district. The plan originally called for a renovation of Building 20; the “Friends” believe that a full Environmental Impact Report would be required to make this modification.

Christensen said this modification wouldn't seem to need an environmental impact report, because the original plan, which called for the renovation of 14 buildings, the demolition of at least eight, and reworking of pools, was examined in 2006 and didn't require a report. “We did an addendum to this study,” Christensen said. “Their conclusion was that there would be no additional impacts.”

Dotty LeMieux, a San Rafael environmental attorney not affiliated with the case, said, “It sounds like they should have done an environmental impact report, because they call it a mod of an existing project.” LeMieux added that it is notable that the garden, “that would mitigate greenhouse gasses,” would be replaced with a parking lot.  “Off the top of my head,” said LeMieux, “it's not a minor change, it's a new development.” Another issue in the case is a matter of public notice. LeMieux agreed that it didn't seem as if the college gave adequate notice.

Christensen said that the college’s budget in 2006, when the original plan was drafted, didn't anticipate the now-impending cancellation of the horticulture program, adding that budget difficulties make it difficult for even general education classes to continue. She added that the building, which houses only one class, and that one on the brink of cancellation, would cost between three and four million to renovate. All offices have been relocated out of the building, she said.

“Right now, we're struggling to offer enough basic courses. We'd have to fill that demand first,” Christensen said, adding “even that's not near-term for sure.”

Christensen said the original estimate, that 13,500 square feet of 50,000 square feet of garden would be bulldozed, was high; careful remeasurement shows that just under 11,000 square feet would be lost. The 175-spot parking lot, she said, is important, as 750 spaces will be blocked during construction.

Whether parking is needed or not, the garden's “friends” maintain their concern for open space.

“In this day and age when we have vanishing open space,” said LeMiux, “horticulture is environmentally important and the idea of replacing it with parking is ludicrous.”

Angelo Lanham is a community outreach intern for the Chapter’s Building Climate-Friendly Communities campaign.