DEL MAR — Wedged between the will of its neighbors and the city, the 31-year-old Winston School may be seeing some big changes in the coming years.
The future of the school hinges on the outcome of a lease negotiation with the city now several years in the making, according to Winston Head of School and Executive Director Dena Harris.
Winston, a small nonprofit school that serves children with learning disabilities from all over the county, leases a 1.8-acre portion of a 5.3-acre piece of city-owned parkland off of 9th Street. The school’s term is scheduled to expire in 2063.
Starting in 2023, the city is requesting an annual rent in the estimated amount of $266,910.31— a number that might force the school to increase its enrollment and nearly double its square footage.
So far, neighbors are not happy with this potential outcome — and neither is Harris.
“I have two masters, and they’re not agreeing,” Harris said. “And I’m stuck in the middle.”
Winston’s current lease negotiations with Del Mar hark back to the city’s purchase of what is commonly referred to as the Shores Park property — prized by locals as one of the last open green spaces in Del Mar.
The journey to acquire the land was no simple feat — and Winston played a prominent role in making it a reality.
The Del Mar School District owned the property since the 1940s, when one of the area’s earliest pioneers, William G. Kerckhoff, conveyed the property to the district with the deed restriction that it be used for school purposes only.
As such, the property has housed a school since its early days, with Winston coming in as a tenant in 1988. However, in 2005, the district declared the property surplus and expressed an interest in selling it to a commercial developer, according to the city’s mayor at the time of purchase, Carl Hilliard.
The Friends of Del Mar Parks, a community group led by Joe Sullivan and Laura DeMarco, decided to help raise the money to finance the city’s purchase of the property and preserve the park space. Their campaign generated approximately $2.5 million in the span of about two years.
Sullivan estimates that about 600 community members contributed to the effort.
“There had never been any fundraising campaign anywhere near this in Del Mar before,” he said.
The Friends worked in conjunction with Winston to raise funds — not knowing at the time how much they would need to purchase the property. The city and the school district were in the midst of “contentious negotiations” over the final price tag of the property, said Hilliard. It was ultimately purchased for $8.5 million.
Winston brought $3 million dollars to the table, which represented prepaid rent. The remainder of the purchase was paid off in 2010 when the city sold the Balboa reservoir property.
In 2008, with the acquisition of the Shores property, Winston became the city’s tenant.
And with the school’s prepaid rent set to run its course by 2023, Harris and community members are questioning some of the terms of the original lease, and hoping that the new lease might mend past discrepancies.
Members of the community have asked the city to enter into “good faith negotiations” with the school, in light of unique circumstances surrounding its tenancy.
Winston’s October lease proposal cited the school’s role as a clear competitor for the purchase of the property back in the mid-2000s; however, the school agreed not to compete with the city over the purchase “in the spirit of partnership.”
Harris also said the school’s 2008 lease with the city was “miscalculated.”
The city adopted the lease the school had maintained with the district. However, said lease had originally dictated that the district owned and was responsible for the buildings the school occupied, whereas at the time of the city’s purchase, Winston took on the financial burden of upkeeping the campus’s buildings.
Harris said this shift in responsibility should have resulted in a land lease, which is what she is currently proposing — $147,000 annually.
As the city and the school continue closed-door lease negotiations, the process has been compounded by a looming deadline for the school.
As stipulated by its original lease with the city, Winston is required to submit an application for redevelopment by the end of 2019, and commence a complete reconstruction of the aging campus before the end of 2025.
A remodel under Winston’s proposed land lease could yield a school with the same footprint as the current campus, at about 25,000 square feet. Harris said this rent will also allow the school to remain at its current enrollment size of 120 to 150 students.
Or — if ultimately faced with the rent proposal recently set forth by the city of over $266,000 annually — Harris said she will move forward with a 47,000-square-foot campus, which would accommodate increased enrollment and expanded programming.
Harris said she would also push for a rezone in order to commercialize the property, and close off the school and parking lot from public use.
“(Del Mar) wants a passive-use park,” Harris said. “They want access to the school, which they are closing the door on 100%.”
So far, as the school undergoes the Citizens’ Participation Program process with its new potential design, Harris said neighbors on 9th Street and Stratford Court have not been pleased with the idea of an expanded campus.
“They were very clear,” she said, adding that several neighbors described the designs as “unacceptable” and “monstrous.”
Linda Castile, a Del Mar resident and former teacher at Winston for 20 years, said changing the size of the school would also impact the specialized education they offer to students from across the region.
“The school would be different,” Castile said. “The size is part of what makes it the way it is. As a staff member I knew every kid — there was no kid whose name I didn’t know.”
Harris said she believes the nonprofit school deserves a $1 annual lease “in principal,” the same lease incurred by Del Mar Community Connections, which also occupies a building on the Shores property. The $1 rent is what the school proposed for the new lease in October 2018 — a proposal that was rejected by the city.
“We are simply not in a position to accept your proposal as submitted, as it would result in a significant transfer of value from the City to Winston constituting a gift of public funds,” reads the city’s Dec. 20 letter responding to Winston’s proposal.
In the letter, the city offered three “optional tools” that Winston could use to discount the city’s proposed rent. One of the listed tools suggested the school “build and manage affordable housing units” for a discount of $36,000 per year.
The suggestion provoked a vocal response from community members — particularly those who worked to raise money to help the city purchase the property for park and school uses, a use for which it is deed restricted.
Robert Hajek, a local resident and attorney who donated to the Friends’ campaign, sent a letter demanding the city to “immediately cease and desist any further discussions with anyone concerning development of housing on the Shores’ site.”
In a phone call with The Coast News, Hajek said he hopes the suggestion was “just a mistake.”
“It never should have been presented,” he said.
The letter came days after the city made a decision to exclude Shores Park from being considered along with several other parcels for a zoning amendment — a move meant to increase capacity for affordable housing in Del Mar.
Councilman Dwight Worden said the units the city suggested in its letter would be for faculty members and staff — and therefore would still fall under the category of a school use. They would also qualify as part of the city’s state-mandated affordable housing allocations.
“To some extent it’s been misconstrued, that somehow the city was backing up and asking Winston for affordable housing,” Worden said, adding that what the city suggested would not require a rezone. “That’s not what’s happening.”
The council discussed the lease negotiations in closed session on Aug. 5, with City Attorney Leslie Devaney reporting that the city will not comment until negotiations are complete. City staff have declined to comment.
Worden told The Coast News the city is “being very careful to make sure the process proceeds as it’s supposed to, which so far it is.”
Worden said he does not know when the lease negotiations will be addressed in open session.
Since 2016, the city had been in discussions with Winston to collaborate on the Shores Park Master Plan — a plan to revitalize the property’s park area. The two entities entered into a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on improvements to the entire site in 2017, as Winston was already obliged to move forward with a remodel.
However, as lease negotiations have proceeded, said understanding has since broken down. At this point, Worden says the two parties are moving forward with standalone approaches, “each of us on our own.”
Photo Caption: Del Mar’s 31-year-old Winston School is currently in lease negotiations with the city, the outcome of which will determine whether the school will need to double in size to remain on the property. Photo by Lexy Brodt.