Want to submit a comment? Submit your comment on the Draft EIR as soon as possible, but no later than 5:00pm on Wednesday, December 13, 2023 to Cupton@smmusd.org

Grant Elementary School in Sunset Park, where my daughter goes to school, is not like most American schools. Nestled in a truly walkable area, it is a neighborhood school where most students are still seen arriving by walking, rolling, or transit, not by car. The long, snaking lines of parents in vehicles, backed up for blocks, fuming that they’re late to work again? There are some of those, but they don’t define Grant the way they define other schools. At morning drop off and again at afternoon pick up, the small plaza on Pearl St works as a lively public square, as parents say hello to each other, peruse the information tables and sandwich boards set out to advertise fundraisers and festivals, and meander around cargo bikes parked on the lawn nearby, for lack of any other appropriate space.

Apparently this is too good of a situation for the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) and Carey Upton, the district’s COO who is overseeing all the current SMMUSD campus Master Planning processes and seemingly wants to bring Grant to be more in line with other “normal” car-centered schools.

However, a coalition of Grant parents, neighbors, and advocacy groups led by Santa Monica Families for Safe Streets is calling for another solution – one that will actually meet the needs of the school for more non-car-based drop off/pick up space. Because the district is currently gathering public comments (until December 13) on the draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the solution can be accommodated within the current master planning process.

On November 29, SMMUSD held its legally required public comment meeting for the EIR. The meeting started with a presentation that outlines the proposal to spend potentially millions of dollars of future bond funds to modernize school facilities, rebuild classrooms (resulting in the net addition of 12 new classrooms) and increase the number of staff parking spaces by 50% (from 62 to 94 spaces), while also adding an “arrival court” at the south 24th St entrance to encourage student drop-offs by car.

Congestion at morning dropoff. Photo: Boris Suchkov

The presentation downplayed the facts of increased classroom and parking/driving capacity, saying only that the parking lots will be “reconfigured.” Similarly, despite the plain facts of the project, the EIR transportation’s chapter declares, without analysis or evidence, that student enrollment, campus capacity, and Vehicle Miles Traveled will all remain unchanged, proclaiming “Less than Significant Impacts” on the community.

The number of members of the public (including myself) who attended this meeting? Four. At a school with enrollment of over 500 students. This is not to blame the parents and caregivers of the students. After all, they had their kids to attend to. The public meeting was in-person only, on a weeknight, and offered neither childcare nor food.

The low attendance and general state of obscurity of such meetings is a failure of our public institutions, and most directly, it represents COO Upton’s modus operandi. With millions of dollars of bond funds at stake, the less informed public discussion is, the easier it is to manipulate the EIR findings to match the district’s desired narrative while gaslighting the public about sustainability and supposed lack of environmental impacts.

Perhaps Mr. Upton wants to tightly control the process and minimize public discussion because he is afraid of an angry neighbor or a frivolous lawsuit. In fact, CEQA has sometimes been weaponized by overzealous residents who are against development of any kind, as in the recent Berkeley case where students were declared to be noise pollution. That’s not what’s happening here. In the case of Grant Elementary, there is a definite and serious problem with the Transportation section of the EIR which puts the validity of the entire analysis into question. 

The consultant, or consultants, who wrote the EIR claimed to have visited the school for observations on May 3, 2022. However, no reasonable person familiar with Grant would agree with some of their “findings”, which include:

  • The Pearl St entrance can only be used for TK, Pre-K, and Kindergarten students.
  • Those in grades 1-5 must go around to the south (24th St) entrance, even if they live immediately in front of the north side of the school.
  • 24th St drop-offs by car occur in the staff parking lot – even though that practice was discontinued years ago for security reasons (today, parents must drop-off at the turnaround where the street dead-ends at Grant – already a source of complaining from neighbors).
  • The majority of students arrive by car – a claim made based on no survey or analysis, and contrary to all evidence.

Why would the new “arrival court” and expanded parking lot be a disaster for the community? It is easy to see. As parents learn about the new, easier way to drop off their kids by car, they will start using the new 24th St entrance. Soon the street will be clogged with cars every morning. The new entrance won’t just be limited to accommodating existing (very low) levels of use, as the EIR claims. New supply will generate its own demand, a concept called “induced demand” that is officially acknowledged at transportation planning agencies at the state and regional levels. The EIR’s magical thinking won’t change that.

As enrollment turns over, new parents will learn that driving to Grant is the default. Fewer parents who want to continue walking or biking will feel safe on neighborhood streets as more cars flood the neighborhood. School fundraising revenue may go down as fewer people look at signs and mingle in the main plaza. Neighbors on 24th St who need to drive out for work or errands at peak times will be forced to wait or use the narrow alleys, possibly coming in conflict with parents trying to shortcut the line.

The solution? Admit the facts in the EIR: more parking and easier car access = more driving, more congestion and collisions; less biking and walking. Today, most students enter the school on foot at the main Pearl St entrance. Let’s enhance that entrance further by reducing crowding and providing for a dedicated cargo bike area. Called a “mitigation measure” in CEQA-speak, this can be a win-win for both SMMUSD and the community.

My daughter has four more years at Grant. I hope she does not have to miss more and more of her friends at drop off because they now go by car to the south entrance. I hope when she is old enough to walk or bike to school by herself, she can continue to do so safely.

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