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City gives initial OK to close block for St. Joseph expansion

By Melissa Crowe
Jan. 2, 2013 at 10:01 p.m.
Updated Jan. 2, 2013 at 7:03 p.m.

St. Joseph High School is asking the city to close a portion of De Leon Street so it  can expand its campus to the lot on the east side of De Leon Street, where the school intends to build a fine arts center.

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For a child, crossing a street marks a major physical and psychological growth.

For a school, it signals a strong future, the potential for growth and a community partnership.

In a split 5-2 vote Wednesday, Victoria City Council preliminarily approved trading a block of De Leon Street fronting St. Joseph High School in exchange for three blocks of right-of-way along East Red River Street and an $11,700 payment. The private school also will pay the city up to $25,000 for utility repairs under De Leon Street.

The transfer gives the school room to expand and peace-of-mind that students can safely cross the street without threats of oncoming traffic. However, residents in the College Park neighborhood said because high school teens should know how to safely cross the street, alternatives should be explored before the road is closed.

Charla Borchers, who lives on De Leon Street, said residents support the growth, but not the method.

She presented a petition with more than 70 signatures against the road closure.

"Living there is very different from going to school there or working there," Borchers said.

While students, parents and staff of St. Joseph High are affected by the road for about four years, Borchers argued that College Park residents are permanently affected by the closure.

Victoria Development Services Director Jared Mayfield said the exchange results in the school "buying more property than they're giving back to the city."

The exchange would give the city room to expand the lanes on East Red River Street, put in a sidewalk or a turning lane onto Main Street, he said.

Bill McArdle, the president and principal of St. Joseph High School, said the school has plans for an expansion.

Once it receives final approval on a FEMA grant, it will build a new arts and athletics facility to double as emergency shelter across De Leon Street.

"To cross that street between parked cars with the traffic that goes up and down (De Leon) would create a huge safety issue with our students," McArdle said.

Because of the school's use during the week, weekends and summer, McArdle said "there is no other option" other than closing the street.

While the right-of-way the city would receive could make room for a road expansion along Red River Street, the portion extends about 9.7 feet from the roadway.

Because the average city lane is 12 to 14 feet wide, the city would need to get right-of-way on the other side of Red River Street, Mayfield said.

In addition, to build the turning lane, the city would need to get right-of-way from the railroad, which Public Works Director Lynn Short said would be a "lengthy process."

Councilmembers Emett Alvarez and Josephine Soliz voted against the transfer after Alvarez's motion to amend the deal failed in a 3-4 vote.

Alvarez said beyond the safety issue of crossing the street, he "could not find sufficient enough reason" to close De Leon Street.

He proposed designating the portion of road fronting the school a no-parking zone and closing it to thru-traffic from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

"It's a historical street," Alvarez said. "I don't want to upset the good system of the old townsite."

Councilman Joe Truman, a 1981 St. Joseph graduate, supported Alvarez's amendment, but once it failed, voted in favor of the transfer.

"In my heart of hearts, I know it's the right thing," he said.

The bottom line, Truman said, is safety and knowing no one will be injured crossing the street.

"The school has to grow," he said. "All we can do is work with them and try to come up with a solution."

Right now, that solution is closing the roadway, he said.

Mayfield said other options, including temporarily closing the street during school hours, were considered.

However, he said a temporary street closure is difficult to monitor, and locking down the street morning and afternoon is labor-intensive.

"It's not very practical," Mayfield said.

Every residential street in that neighborhood has access to Navarro, Main or Red River streets, Mayfield said.

"Closing that one block at Virginia would potentially increase some traffic onto Wheeler," Mayfield said. "But it's only one block and they could still branch out onto Virginia and go the way they would normally go."

The city has previously sold streets to Citizens Medical Center and DeTar Hospital Navarro.

Councilman Tom Halepaska said the transfer would not restrict access to the neighborhood "unduly."

"The minor inconvenience of having to go an additional block around is something you will find around any school," he said.

Council's vote marks the first step to finalize the exchange, City Attorney Thomas Gwosdz said.

"The council is authorizing the city to sign a contract that will later result in the sale of that property," Gwosdz said.

The next step to the exchange is bringing the issue back as an ordinance to be read three times with a public hearing, which is not anticipated to happen for the next month, he said.

Even though the resolution passed, the council did not commit to the exchange, Gwosdz said.

Arturo Calvo, a St. Joseph School parent, said the question was not "if" an accident could happen, but "when."

Robert Kovar, chairman of the school's board of directors, said the school contacted residents to come up with a solution.

"We're trying to be a good neighbor to the people in our neighborhood, to the citizens of our community, and I think we've demonstrated that with communicating with our neighborhood," Kovar said.

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