[Metroactive News&Issues]

[ Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

Lessons of the Land

Owls Not Well: Some of the valley's last burrowing owls are losing a foraging area as Mission College develops its open space.

Cash-strapped Mission College leases the last of its open space to developers to pay for a new student center

By Jim Rendon

THE IMMENSE RED "A" in the AMC Theaters marquee arcs over another new megaplex, this one just down the road from Great America in Santa Clara. The letters beckon with the gloss of a perfectly engineered corporate logo. Peeking out from behind this voluptuous red siren is a plain white sign tacked to the roof of a building. In unassuming block letters, it reads: Mission College.

Far from trying to assert itself over its slick new neighbor, the college did all it could to ensure that the gleaming behemoth got built. The reason stems from what the board sees as its "educational goals." The college needs money.

Mission College is on the cutting edge of a new trend in education, wherein colleges must now raise funds by whatever means necessary. In Silicon Valley, there is no easier way to raise money than to offer up vacant land for development.

Recognizing this, and needing to raise cash for new buildings and computers, the school district gladly hemmed the college in behind strip malls.

Mission College's financial woes result from unfortunate timing. The campus was in mid-construction when Californians passed Proposition 13. The property-tax money stopped, and the campus remained less than half completed.

On the third floor of Mission's main building, a scale model depicting what could have been sits collecting dust. A series of four buildings radiating out from a center structure was planned. All the college got was the one building in the middle.

The course of action was obvious. "A new student center costs $12 million," says Dr. Rose Tseng, chancellor of the district. "We could not just sell cookies." In 1988, the district decided to raise money by leasing out 60 acres of land that the college no longer planned to use. As of last spring, all 60 acres had been leased. An L-shaped collection of strip malls and multistory corporate parks circles half the campus. The last deal to go through, six acres at the entrance to the school, is now being dug up for Nexus, which plans a 300,000-square-foot research and development center.

Nexus will most likely lease space to two other companies, though no one will say yet which companies, because the deals are not yet complete.

Mark Perlberger, a Sacramento Realtor and executive director of the corporation which was set up to lease the land, says these deals mean big money for a cash-starved education system. This year, $1.2 million is expected from the leases, and Perlberger estimates that by the end of 1998, the district will collect about $3 million a year.

But all this money has not been generated without some expense.

Ruffled Feathers

THE BURROWING OWL, a small creature that lives in vacated underground squirrel dens, has poked its head up here--as it has at other development sites throughout the valley. Most recently, the critter has helped throw a wrench into Sun Microsystems' plans for the Agnews campus. The owl, whose numbers have dwindled dramatically in the South Bay, is considered a "species of special concern" under the Endangered Species Act and cannot simply be plowed under.

At Mission College, the school dug out burrows for the owl and agreed to leave some other land undeveloped so the leases could go forward.

"As an educational institution, we owe it to the public to maintain habitat areas," Mission College President Mark Rao says. The owl has certainly felt the impact of development. Even Rao admits that when some owls were taken to the campus from leased property, they found their way back to the construction sites a number of times.

In order to lease the land and move forward with its own building plans, the college had to come up with a management plan for the owl. That plan was approved by the county and by owl advocates.

Lynn Trulio, an associate professor at San Jose State University who has studied the owl for years, says the plan was a step in the right direction, but didn't go far enough.

"The owls are losing habitat left, right and center," Trulio says. "There is no way to really protect them."

Before development began, there were 16 pairs of owls on the campus. Now, Trulio says, there are nine, and the 30 to 40 acres set aside in the plan for nesting and foraging will most likely support only eight pairs.

In addition to this partial attempt at mitigation, the district faces allegations of wrongdoing from one of its own.

Phil Stokes, who was president of the land corporation's board during the Nexus deal, has called for a grand jury investigation of the deal. Though Stokes would not talk about the specifics of his allegations, he said, "the majority of the board leaned over backwards to help a developer."

Other board members have a hard time with Stokes' allegations.

"He's off his rocker," district board President Joy Atkins says. "We had a lawyer with us every step of the way, and we did not do anything illegal."

The grand jury has not yet decided whether it will investigate.

Allegations of malfeasance and damage to owls aside, there seems to be something amiss when a school tucked into the middle of a world-renowned economic boomtown has to parcel out land to get by. The irony is not lost on Rao. But, he asks, "if the public is not there, what do you do?"

Though he says the college is seeking a balance between development and preservation, he adds, "the reality is that education costs money."

[ Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the Oct. 23-29, 1997 issue of Metro.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

Foreclosures - Real Estate Investing
San Jose.com Real Estate