Topic of Gregory School improvements remains heated

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The final plan for the proposed bus driveway and expanded parking lot at Gregory Elementary School was presented to a decidedly split audience of residents, educators and township officials assembled in the school’s cafeteria, with one half of the room praising the design for its potential to keep children safe and the other half questioning whether it will make an already bad traffic situation worse.

Regardless of public opinion, however, engineer J. Michael Petry did accomplish what he vowed to do after presenting his original concept plan to the community in March. His revised design maintained the premise of freeing up Lowell Avenue — currently where both buses and parents drop children off, causing traffic backup and a safety hazard — in favor of a “kiss-and-go” lane for parents to quickly drop off their children while buses let off students directly at the school door. The new plan it also incorporated many of the suggestions made by residents unsatisfied with the first plan.

One such change involved reducing the length of the bus driveway, which will take buses off the road into a loop in front of the school. Petry said he shortened the driveway to ensure that the Centennial Plaza will not have to be removed while also keeping the driveway farther from the intersection. Petry said the width of the existing sidewalk will be expanded from 4 to 8 feet, making it easier for large groups of students to exit buses and proceed to the school door. And he said signage will be added indicated the driveway is open to buses only.

The faculty parking lot will be widened toward the school and toward the northerly residences, which Petry said will allow for a total of 71 parking spaces — the maximum number that fit — an increase from the current 53 spaces. Traffic engineer Harold Maltz said he had observed an extra 13 cars squeezed in at various places such as on the grass and parallel to the back curb. Maltz said the expanded lot allows all of those additional cars to fit, and it makes it physically impossible for vehicles to park illegally since there will be no space to do so. The 10 faculty parking spaces considered for placement along the bus driveway have been eliminated.

And though the parking lot driving aisles will be wide enough to fit two vehicles, Petry said the circulation pattern will remain the same as it is currently: the northerly lane will be one-way from front to rear, the back lane will be one-way from north to south, the school-side lane will be one-way from rear to front and the front and center driveways will be two-way. Minibuses will also continue to drop children off on the sidewalk abutting the northerly driveway, though he stressed that vehicles will have enough room to get around them.

Petry additionally addressed the possibility of flooding, as many neighbors have expressed concerns that removing trees will cause storm water to run off onto their properties. The engineer assured that this will not happen because the existing drainage system has been expanded to incorporate additional inlets. He also said the parking lot will be regraded so that water actually reaches those inlets, and a trench drain will be added with inlets along the front that will connect to the street’s drainage system. He said trench drains will also be incorporated on the driveway before the sidewalks so water does not sheet across into the street; this is designed to prevent icing.

Other changes made to the plan include the addition of flowering dogwoods in the front of the school instead of the originally proposed walls which, Petry said, will allow people to see the school while being aesthetically pleasing. Boxwoods will be also planted along the curbline.

In fact, Petry said the only concern he was unable to address was the removal of the flagpole, which will be relocated to another position in the front of the building.

The fact that the plan is finally coming to fruition pleased many of the residents in attendance after years of voicing their concerns that Gregory’s current traffic situation is unsafe. With both buses and parents dropping their children off on Lowell, many parents double-park and let their sons and daughters out into the street, which puts them at risk. The buses and parent vehicles also create congestion on the roadway, which is made even worse by the fact that teachers often have to park on Lowell because there is not enough room in the faculty parking lot.

A proposed bus lane for the school was rejected in 2007, and other ideas about how to remedy the situation have fallen through  since then. But after township officials met with school representatives and parents about the situation recently, the Township Council voted to issue $357,140 in bonds to fund the implementation of traffic improvements for the school.

With Petry’s plan complete, advocates hope the Gregory area will soon be safer for students and less busy for area drivers. They maintain that if students are dropped off by buses safely at the door while parents drop off their children at the curb in the kiss-and-go lane, traffic will more easily get through Gregory.

But many area residents were not so sure Petry’s plan will be effective, and they were not afraid to speak their mind during the community meeting.

Joe Berwind came out against the plan, stressing that the rate of vehicular travel was not being considered. He said 15 cars typically stack up on Gregory Avenue while waiting for the traffic light during peak hours. To have four large buses on the road entering and exiting the bus driveway will slow other vehicles’ rate of travel and cause even greater delays, Berwind said. The cars trying to get into the expanded faculty parking lot will also add to the traffic on Gregory, he said, making the situation worse.

“What went across Lowell,” Berwind said, “is now going to be in the front all the time.”

Berwind stressed that an official traffic study should be completed in order to understand exactly how Petry’s design will affect a car’s rate of travel. The plan may look great on paper, he said, but no one really knows how optimal it will be unless an expert is hired to study the area’s traffic.

“No matter how hard you sell it, you didn’t do the study,” Berwind said. “You should’ve done the study. There is no excuse for not doing it.”

Yet Maltz — who was contracted by Petry at the request of the township to conduct traffic observations, not a study — disagreed with Berwind’s reasoning. For one, the traffic engineer said the peak hour backup on Gregory does not last that long, estimating 20 minutes in the morning and 10 to 12 minutes in the afternoon. He said teachers’ vehicles will not add to that, pointing out that they usually arrive at school well before class starts and the traffic stacks up.

According to Maltz, the buses also will not be a problem because they already travel down Gregory without major incident. Once the plan is implemented, they will just be turning into their driveway before the intersection. From what he observed, he said the buses also took only a few minutes to drop off or pick up children. And they did so one at a time, he said, so there was no crowding.

Overall, Maltz said there simply is no reason to do a traffic study because the buses will not cause the delays predicted by Berwind.

“We’re not talking about 100 or 200 cars,” Maltz said. “It’s four buses. That does not translate into minutes of delay.”

Not everyone took Maltz’s word for it. Resident Drew Sawyer said Maltz’s observations of what currently happens on Lowell Avenue do not necessarily predict what will happen on Gregory Avenue, pointing out that Gregory might have a different traffic flow once new school access points are added. He also called Maltz’s observations “hearsay” since the traffic engineer has refused to release his notes to community members.

The call for Maltz to release his notes was echoed repeatedly throughout the evening. But the traffic engineer said he simply cannot release any records related to a client, otherwise he could be sued. Regardless, he said the notes were just meant to help him present his findings publicly. He had already orally shared all the information the notes contained with the residents, he said.

Even with Maltz’s observations, several residents remained unconvinced that Petry’s plan would do any good. Heidi Sawyer said police enforcement of Lowell’s traffic rules would do a much better job of stopping congestion and keeping children safe while saving the township a lot of money. Instead, she said West Orange is bonding for a kiss-and-go lane that probably will not work.

“I guarantee you what’s going to happen is parents are going to continue violating the law, continue to park and you’re going to have problems with your kids,” Heidi Sawyer said. “Even though you’re removing the buses, you’re not removing the problem.”

Heidi Sawyer also questioned how the school will make sure parents do not use the bus driveway to drop off their children.

Gregory Principal Michelle Thompson answered that Assistant Principal Makeida Hewitt will be at the driveway every day to make sure that only buses use it. In addition, Thompson said she and her staff will be outside monitoring traffic and ensuring that all parents follow the rules. If they take too long in the kiss-and-go lane, she said she wouldn’t be afraid to tell them to move.

All things considered, Thompson said Petry’s plan should be implemented because Lowell Avenue is a “dangerous situation” for students being dropped off and picked up. The principal said she gets complaints all the time about cars “whizzing by” and parents double-parking to let children out into the street — all of which put children at risk. She said these traffic measures are essential in order to prevent a tragedy.

“We’re about safety,” Thompson said. “These are our kids. It’s our community. It’s safety. That’s what I think some of us are forgetting.”

Thompson was not the only Gregory School staff member to give an impassioned speech in favor of the plan. Second-grade teacher Jean Tirrito said she often sees parents dropping students off in the faculty parking lot due to Lowell being overcrowded, which means children are in danger of being hit by a car. Tirrito also pointed out that having children board a bus right outside the school door just makes sense.

“If we were able to bring them right outside, it would be so much quicker, the traffic would move so much faster and the children would be that much safer,” Tirrito said, adding that the welfare of a child is important, even if the driveway causes the some residents fear. “You’re willing to place the safety of children (in danger) over a possible five-minute delay? That’s what I’m missing. I don’t understand it.”

The Gregory staff members were not the only ones who came out strongly in support of Petry’s plan. A few parents talked about seeing children nearly struck by vehicles due to the hectic nature of Lowell Avenue, with one saying she herself was almost hit by a car on one occasion. They did not appear convinced the plan will disturb traffic, either. Resident Michael Rintzler, a network engineer who studies traffic flow, even stated that the traffic on Gregory Avenue should not see a change because no new traffic is being added.

Ken Alper, chairman of the Gregory PTA Traffic Safety Committee, which helped bring about the plan, spoke to the necessity of changing the school’s current traffic situation. If the buses especially are left on Lowell, Alper said there is a good chance that a child will be hurt.

“It’s a lousy visibility situation,” Alper said, describing a scene of small children walking around large buses with vehicles trying to navigate around them. “If everyone’s driving perfectly, if everyone’s doing exactly the speed limit or below, it’s still dangerous because the sight lines are bad. We need to get the buses off of Lowell to solve this.”

In the end, after an evening with the tension at times as heated as the humid night air, neither side came around to the other’s way of thinking. But Councilwoman Michelle Casalino, who hosted the meeting in her capacity as West Orange Township Council liaison to the Board of Education, pointed out that there some undeniable facts to the situation.

“I think we can all agree on two things this evening,” Casalino said. “There’s a definite safety issue up here in the neighborhood on Lowell Avenue and over on Gregory Avenue. I believe, No. 2, we can all agree that this plan has come a long way.”

The plan was scheduled to be presented to the West Orange Planning Board on June 1, after press time.

Photos by Sean Quinn