Neighbors disagree over plans to close De Leon street for St. Joseph expansion

Jan. 23, 2013 at 11 p.m.
Updated Jan. 23, 2013 at 7:24 p.m.

Within minutes, the two sides were at a standoff.

St. Joseph High School administrators invited College Park residents to meet Wednesday evening to talk over the school's expansion and goal to close a block of De Leon Street.

However, the discussion pitted longtime residents against a school they supported and, for some, previously attended.

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

Robert Kovar, president of the school's board of directors, summed up the discussion in response to a resident's frustration.

"You want it open, we would prefer it closed - I guess we'll have to agree to disagree," he said.

Nancy Baass, who owns a home on De Leon Street north of the school, said the compromise is to temporarily close the street during school hours.

"But there is no compromise," she said.

Baass said the invitation to the meeting was condescending.

"I'm just a little insulted," she said.

For four years, the school has planned an expansion project across De Leon Street. When guarantees of a Federal Emergency Management Administration grant came into the mix last year, the project grew to meet those requirements.

(Pro/Con: Street should close for school growth)

In addition to providing classroom space and athletics facilities, the project grew to include provisions to serve as an emergency shelter. The grant has not yet been awarded to the school.

The project's architect, Rawley McCoy said closing the street came up on day one of the planning.

"The street closure did not begin with the FEMA grant," he said.

(Pro/Con: Students should be able to cross safely)

Safety has been the main point in support of closing the street. However, the school's administration expanded their reasoning to include a neighborhood green space, correcting traffic flow issues and chiefly, increasing parking by 40 spaces.

"We can build the building with the street there, but we're going to lose a bunch of parking," Kovar said.

Kovar said if the building is set back off the street with the 25-foot line required by FEMA, there would not be enough parking for students.

He contends that closing De Leon Street and making more parking spaces available would reduce the number of cars parked on the street, an issue neighborhood residents have put up with for 30 years.

McCoy said the school is obligated to have a set number of off-street parking and has to make every effort to reach that amount. For the project to comply with city code, the 40 spaces are vital.

Mayor Will Armstrong spoke at the beginning of the meeting before leaving for another function.

"The way I see this is St. Joseph needs the dirt - they need the room to expand," he said. "I think the votes are there on the council. ... My vote will be to support the administration and the reinvention of the St. Joe campus."

Veronica Vallejo-Cano, who lives on North Liberty Street, graduated with the school's 1998 class.

She talked about her career in education and time spent teaching at a large school in Houston that happened to have a street run through it.

Vallejo-Cano said St. Joseph High School could follow the example led by the Houston school, which locked a gate on either end of the street to block traffic from entering.

"I feel like there's no other option, this is what's going to happen," Vallejo-Cano said.

Mary Kay Barker, a St. Joseph parent, supports the street closure.

"I bought a house four blocks from the high school, I guess that's what I got in that bargain," Barker said. "I do feel like you all are trying to work with the neighborhood."

Connie McDougal, who lives on Hillar Street and has owned four homes in College Park over the years, said the expansion is terrific, but the safety of the neighborhood is at stake.

"You talk about the safety of these students, I can't put my trash can out on a Friday morning, I'll be run over," she said.

She worries that closing De Leon Street would worsen the traffic flow issues.

"They're taking advantage of the goodwill of our neighborhood," she said. "This neighborhood loves St. Joe."

The issue will likely come up at the Feb. 4 City Council meeting. That agenda will be posted next week.

Councilman Emett Alvarez, who attended the meeting, said his position has not changed.

"I want a win-win situation," he said. "The dialogue needs to continue."

The school is in his district, as well as the super district Councilman Joe Truman represents.

Truman said he believes in the school, citizens and the city administration to come up with a compromise.

"They may not like it, but that's what compromising is," he said. "Let's come up with something workable."

Councilwoman Josephine Soliz also attended and stood firm in her vote against the street closure.

"I hear people saying that they were conned, that there would be an option and there wasn't," she said. "There should have been kids and parents here. It has to have kids and parents behind this."



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