Irvine City Council members this week unanimously approved general plan amendment and zoning changes, clearing the way for a housing development to replace a closed school site.
The William Lyon Homes project, which includes 55 detached, single-family homes and park space, would replace Vista Verde Elementary School's former site at Michelson Drive and Rosa Drew Lane in University Park.
The school, more than three decades old and facing dropping enrollment numbers, was slated for closure by the Irvine Unified School District (IUSD) in 2006. The school was relocated to the neighboring community of Turtle Ridge and the former site was put up for sale.
"I know that this is a very difficult decision," IUSD Supt. Terry Walker said before the council Tuesday night. "I certainly understand some of the concerns that some might have, but there no doubt to the benefit that it gives to the students of IUSD."
IUSD stands to gain $17 million in funding from the developer, which when combined with funds from the state, will equal about $30 million for the district, Walker said.
"Institutional zoning is hard to come by and it should not be easily given up," Councilman Larry Agran said.
Ultimately, Agran backed the proposed zoning changes. He pointed to comprehensive studies completed by an IUSD committee from 2002 to 2003, which identified several properties — the former Vista Verde site being one of them — as a drain on the district's resources.
"These infill projects can be very difficult," Agran said. "This was made somewhat easier because, from my observation, all the parties involved — not withstanding the conflicting interests, the criticisms, the comments, the different perspectives — people seemed to enter into all that in good faith."
When the 8.47-acre site closed, IUSD put the property up for sale to state and city public entities, but was unable to secure a buyer.
IUSD then opened the property to others; Lyon Homes was selected in 2008.
While IUSD has yet to transfer ownership of the property, the developer was able to begin working with the city and community residents on the project.
The developer agreed to provide housing and landscape setbacks larger than required by city code, an 8-foot sidewalk along Rosa Drew and to plant trees along the road.
"We believe this project meets the development criteria that were established for the site by the five home owners associations in University Park," said Ken Coulter, representing William Lyon Homes. "It is consistent and compatible with the existing community. It results in significant financial benefit to the school district and to the students of Irvine. It results in significant financial benefit to the city of Irvine."