Developer cancels Forbes property deal as development plans sour (updated)

It’s back to the drawing board for the Claremont Unified School District and plans for the former La Puerta school site located at 2475 N. Forbes Ave.

In November the Claremont Unified School District Board of Education approved the sale of the 9.7-acre parcel to the highest bidder, Brandywine Homes of Irvine. The sale was set to rake in $18,875,000 for the school district, pending escrow and a due diligence period, during which the developer may choose to pull out of the deal with CUSD if it is determined financially unfeasible.

Development plans quickly turned sour, however, as neighbors flocked forward to oppose the real estate company’s 59-home concept, deemed by many as “too high density.” After two unfavorable planning commission reviews and an extension of the due diligence period—moved from its deadline at the end of February to March 28—Brandywine was unable to come up with a viable concept and the deal has been pulled, according to Superintendent of Business Services Lisa Shoemaker.

“We’re back to square one,” Ms. Shoemaker said. “We still plan to attempt to sell the property, but that project is no longer on the table.”

The history of La Puerta is marked by stops and starts, with the school district making several unsuccessful attempts at a purposeful use of the land. La Puerta and the surrounding area were used for agricultural purposes until 1967. The following year, CUSD purchased the property for a second middle school after El Roble became overcrowded. When La Puerta Intermediate School closed in 1979, the city of Claremont entered into a 99-year lease agreement with CUSD for use of the back portion of La Puerta for a city sports park.

Prospects for La Puerta Elementary School, which would have been the district’s eighth elementary school, never materialized after Measure Y money ran out. The district abandoned the project in late 2004. An amendment to the city-school district lease agreement was made in 2007, after the city council approved a 70-foot-tall cell phone tower on the site. In 2008, Carrie Allen, then CUSD director of secondary education, presented the board of education with a five-year plan to increase technical education. With the district offices moved to the adult education building on San Jose Avenue, work on the future CHS Career Technical Center to be located at La Puerta began with a targeted opening of 2010. This second attempt by the district to use the land was also abandoned when lack of funding caused the district to wind down the effort. The CUSD board deemed the site surplus in late 2012.

The school district carries a recent trend in selling surplus property for increasing amounts of money to parties intent on home development. In February of 2012, the old CUSD district office on Mountain Avenue was sold to homebuilder DR Horton for $6.2 million. In June of 2013, the district’s service center on Base Line Road was sold for $7 million, also to DR Horton. Escrow has closed on the first parcel of the old district offices at Mountain and Base Line, with the district securing the $6.2 million for the sale. CUSD hasn’t received income for the second parcel at Mountain and Base Line, as escrow will close later this summer

The school district will take a step back, however, before moving forward again with any development of the Forbes Avenue property. Ms. Shoemaker says the school district is working with the city “to find a happy medium” for the site before heading into another bidding process.

“We are trying to determine what the property is worth so we can establish a minimum bid priced based on the type of project the city will tolerate,” she said. “In the meantime, we don’t have the capital proceeds or opportunity to improve the schools. They are the ones most affected by this.”

While disappointed that a favorable agreement could not be reached, Ryan Zimmerman, a local realtor, says he and others are breathing a sigh of relief. Mr. Zimmerman and more than a dozen Claremont residents have remained vocal about their disapproval of Brandywine’s concepts, which at first included the building of 59 two-story homes, ranging from 3,550 to 4,000 square feet each on 5,000 to 6,000-square foot lots.

Forbes residents were overwhelmingly opposed to the construction of homes much larger than those currently in the neighborhood, which is zoned for homes with a minimum 13,000-square feet lot. They were also averse to Brandywine’s plans to build these homes on Mr. Zimmerman previously described as “postage stamp-sized lots.”

Earlier this month, Brandywine executives presented a revised plan featuring 40 homes, house sizes ranging from 7,600 to 13,500 square feet on lots averaging 8,500 square feet. Mr. Zimmerman remained unimpressed as the plan still remained vastly different in style from the neighboring homes.

“The way they moved forward felt totally backwards,” he said. “The city needs to consider the zoning of the land before future developers take a look at the site to build it. There should be no ambiguity on what can go in there.”

Home development by Brandywine is not completely out of the running. The company may submit another offer along with other interested parties once the bidding process is reopened.  Brandywine’s company president Brett Whitehead indicated the company has not given up its efforts on development in Claremont.

“We are still working on new plans,” he said. “We are going through the process.”

—Beth Hartnett


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