"Hit any traffic on the way in?" asks Scott Borden, seated at the dining room table of his exquisite 1930s Spanish villa home on Randolph Terrace in Mission Hills. "No? Well, try driving down Randolph at 8:00 in the morning. You'll really get a show. People are all queued up there waiting to drop off their kids."
The kids are students of Francis Parker school, an expensive school for kids in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. Since 1913, the school has sat on five acres bound by Montecito Avenue on the south, Randolph Street to the west, a canyon to the east, and Plumosa Way to the north -- or one lot's width north of Plumosa, depending on whom you talk to.
Also sitting at the table -- which affords the diner a grand view across Interstate 8 and Riverwalk Golf Course beyond -- is Sally Julien, who lives a block west of Francis Parker. She continues the traffic complaint. "I just came down Randolph about 3:00 this afternoon, and for a full block there was a line of cars just sitting there waiting to move. To get to my house, I had to drive down the wrong side of the street to get to the corner with Arbor Drive and make a left."
"I can leave this house in a good mood in the morning," Borden says, "and in two blocks I'm a raving maniac. I'm serious. I get to work and I'm shaking, I'm so angry."
Borden chairs and Julien is the secretary of a group of area residents calling itself NOPE, an acronym for No on Parker Expansion. The group formed a year ago when Parker sent out a letter to neighborhood residents telling of plans to -- again, depending on whom you talk to -- renovate or expand the campus.
After the traffic caused by the school, the next thing Borden and Julien mention is parking problems associated with it. As it is now, the school has no on-campus parking. Its staff of 50 to 60 and parents park on the neighborhood's narrow streets. On normal days, it's not a big problem. But on assembly nights, when the parents and students all congregate on campus at once, things can get messy. "They just had back-to-school night," Borden says, "and on back-to-school night, you have 450 kids and their parents come. So that means 450 cars."
"At a minimum," Julien interjects.
"And they're huge SUVs, not just cars," Borden continues. "And there are 50 to 60 faculty members. So in this little neighborhood, you've got 500 people looking for a place to park, which is just impossible. So a lot of parents will park blocking driveways, or they'll park in driveways or whatever. Because the neighborhood is so aware of their expansion plans, many were writing license-plate numbers and taking photos of violations. And I actually got a letter from the school asking me to have my members refrain from taking photos because their parents were concerned about their children's privacy. I couldn't believe it."
The irony of the situation is, Borden and his coalition -- which he estimates comprises 80 percent of the surrounding households -- are willing to put up with the traffic crunches and parking hassles in their neighborhood of $500,000-and-up homes -- so long as Parker is willing to abandon, or at least amend, its expansion/renovation plans. "We think the school is a valuable part of our neighborhood," Borden says. "It's sort of a mystical element of Mission Hills. It's been here so long, and the San Diego public schools aren't as good as they could be. So parents do perceive Mission Hills as a place to live because they can send their kids to Francis Parker. On the other hand, over 80 percent of the kids that go to this school aren't from here. They're from La Jolla, Rancho Santa Fe, as far away as Jamul. So it's not really a local school. And even those 20 percent who live in Mission Hills, very few of them walk to school."
Borden unrolls a construction plan for the campus on the table. "What we've got here is a school with 450 kids. The site that they're on here, the whole thing, is five acres, but only three of it is usable. The rest is canyon. Currently, the school is a little under 17,000 square feet, and their expansion plans call for that to go to 47,000 square feet, which is triple. When you want to triple the size of your school, and you don't want to deal adequately with the issues of parking and traffic and all that sort of stuff, we say you may not do that."
Grant Lichtman, assistant headmaster of Francis Parker School, stands on the sidewalk greeting students as they're dropped off at the Mission Hills campus. It's 8:00 a.m., and there is a line of SUVs and minivans backed up along Randolph Street, but the line is moving steadily. A crossing guard with a pole-mounted stop-sign directs traffic and escorts kids across the street. Cones along the east side of the street keep people from parking and leave room for parents to pull over, drop off their kids, and move on without double parking. As four school staff members whisk the kids through a pair of gates and onto campus, the parents turn left on Arbor Drive, then another left on Palmetto Way, and they're gone. "Here you see our 'traffic problem,' " Lichtman says sarcastically. "You can see the traffic is moving along fine, and in 10 or 15 minutes it will all be gone."
Walking through the administration building and into the magnolia-shaded courtyard beyond, Lichtman leads a visitor to a line of classrooms forming the south wall of the courtyard. He stops at the open door of one classroom in which 15 to 20 first- or second-graders are sitting Indian style on the floor listening to their teacher tell a story. "A year ago this summer, we redid this whole wing," Lichtman explains. "All the electrical systems were the original electrical systems. It had been the old two-wire stuff that dated back to when all you had to run was one light bulb. Now, you've got computers and VCRs and all that sort of thing. So we put in new electrical systems, new cabinets, new lighting, things like that. But you can see, these rooms are still much smaller than a regular public school classroom. This is about 700 square feet. A public-school classroom is about 900 square feet."