Almanac

News - March 30, 2011

Al's Nursery in Portola Valley sold to 'angel buyer'

• Windmill preschool had been negotiating to buy property.

by Dave Boyce

So it's goodbye to Al's Nursery, which closed on March 16 after 51 years of serving the town of Portola Valley at 900 Portola Road, and it's hello to ... well, that isn't clear. It's up to the "angel buyer" who bought the place to decide what to do with it, said former nursery co-owner John Wu.

The doors were supposed to reopen as the new home of Windmill preschool, another Portola Valley institution and one that's been looking for a permanent home.

The school's purchase of the nursery was just days away in early March, Mr. Wu told the Almanac, when Windmill asked for a six-month extension. "They dropped a bombshell on us," he said, speaking for himself and his wife and co-owner Karin Wu. "For us, it was like sitting on pins and needles for the next five days."

To be a school, the property would need a zoning change from residential-commercial to straight commercial, Mr. Wu said. Such a change was not likely to be problematic, he added, but speculated that the school's donors and negotiators may have gotten cold feet at the prospect of dealing with the surprise of a zoning change in addition to a conditional use permit.

As for the future of 900 Portola Road, the "angel buyer" stepped in at the last minute. "We were stuck in a really bad place," Mr. Wu said. "We were very fortunate."

It could still be the new home of Windmill School, but perhaps on a lease basis. "We have expressed to Windmill that this buyer would certainly entertain the idea of Windmill coming in," Mr. Wu said.

Monika Cheney, president of the school's board of directors, said in a March 24 statement that Windmill "has been and continues to be very interested in purchasing Al's Nursery in order to provide the children and youth of our community with both a preschool and family education center.

"The beautiful grounds of Al's Nursery would provide an ideal setting for instilling in our children a life-time love of learning, an appreciation of nature, and a sense of community.

"Windmill's Capital Campaign is thrilled with the opportunity to secure this critical asset for families in our community, and continues to be prepared to acquire the property, pending a needed zoning adjustment."

The town had offered to buy the place about a year and a half back, but that went nowhere, Mr. Wu said. The town's offer was, "to our liking, way too low," given the appraised value, he said.

There's been no word from the town since, Mr. Wu said, though the Town Council met in an emergency closed session about the property on March 23. The council took no action, Mayor Ted Driscoll said.

Since the 1950s

The private preschool was founded, according to its website, in the 1950s on Portola Road near the large windmill from which it took its name. It has had several homes since.

Windmill had proposed in 2004 to relocate to the new Town Center. At the time, plans for the Town Center had not yet coalesced.

A brainstorming session produced seven or eight layouts for the complex. The Town Council, while not opposed to the school's renting space in the two generic classrooms planned for the community hall, declined to dedicate space for it.

Opponents of having the school at Town Center cited traffic impacts eight times a day, the likelihood of two-story buildings in a town with "rural character," and the prospect of involving the town in education.

Advocates for the school at Town Center spoke of a greater sense of community that a preschool could help create.

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