WEST ORANGE, NJ — The long-debated bus driveway and parking lot expansion at Gregory Elementary School is now largely completed, though a few relatively minor items still have to be installed.
Leonard Lepore, the township engineer, said all the work necessary to construct the looping driveway in front of the school and the enlarged staff lot was completed in time for the new school year, as expected. He told the Chronicle that the total cost of the project ended up being approximately $365,000, which is $10,000 less than the $375,000 the township had bonded for it. In all, Lepore said that he is pleased with how the work turned out.
“After a somewhat rocky start, because a tree was removed that shouldn’t have been removed, I think overall the project went very well,” Lepore said in a Sept. 2 phone interview. “For the safety of students and for accommodating the staff, I think it’s a tremendous improvement for the school.”
But not everything has been put into place yet. Lepore said that the school has ordered a new sign and 30-foot flagpole, which he said is more proportionate to the school building than the original 65-foot pole. He added that, as of Sept. 2, all traffic signs had been erected with the exception of two marking the entrance to the bus driveway, which had to be reordered due to incorrect wording; according to the engineer, these signs were scheduled to be installed during Labor Day weekend, but they were not in place Sept. 3, when the Chronicle visited the site.
Lepore said that new LED floodlights also have been ordered through PSE&G for the staff parking lot. He said the utility company expects to have them by the end of September, meaning the school would not have outside parking lights for nearly one month while school is in session. But the engineer does not think that this will be a problem, pointing out that the sun goes down hours after school ends during this time of year. And he said the township has agreed to provide temporary tower lighting for evening school functions held in September.
Additionally, Lepore said that dogwood and boxwood trees also will be planted along the driveway and staff parking lot. He said contractor JTG Construction Inc. will replace the mature, 40-foot spruce tree it mistakenly removed, though the new tree will not be as large as what once stood there. This landscaping will not occur in the immediate future, though. Councilwoman Michelle Casalino told the Chronicle that it will probably happen in the fall since cooler weather is better for planting.
Casalino, who has been involved with the project in her role as Township Council liaison to the Board of Education, said she thinks the project turned out nicely. But she will be even more satisfied once she sees the effect the new layout has on Gregory Avenue. The councilwoman said she believes taking school buses off Lowell Avenue, where they formerly dropped off and picked up students, will be safer for children who exit their parents’ vehicles or walk to school in the same narrow area. She also thinks that putting a kiss-and-go lane on Lowell and having the buses angle in and out of their own driveway on Gregory — a street they traveled down twice on their previous route — will lead to better traffic flow.
Still, Casalino said she will feel better when she sees it actually happen.
“Hopefully all will go well,” Casalino said in a Sept. 2 phone interview. “I’m glad they did a nice job on the project. I’m sure once the landscaping is in and the flagpole and all the other items are completed it’ll be more appealing to the neighbors. However, at the end of the day, their concern was the traffic. So we’ll see how that turns out.”
Gregory Principal Michele Thompson is confident that things will go well, especially because school staff will be situated outside to ensure that everything runs smoothly. Specifically, Thompson said that there will be two faculty members assisting students off buses while Assistant Principal Makeida Hewitt makes sure no parent vehicles enter the driveway. Meanwhile, the principal said she and several other staff members will be standing by the kiss-and-go lane to prevent parents from idling or dropping off students in the street. All the while, she said everyone will be looking for any issues that need to be corrected.
In addition, Thompson said all faculty members have been briefed on the rules for the new layout and all parents were sent detailed instructions. She said this will to be a positive change for the school in the long run, even if things do not go perfectly during the first few days.
“As with anything new, in the first couple of days with the kiss-and-go, people are going to have to get accustomed to it,” Thompson told the Chronicle in a Sept. 4 phone interview. “But after that, I think it will run very smoothly. People just have to have patience.”
Thompson added that the driveway looks “beautiful,” while the expanded staff parking lot is an asset since faculty will not have to double park anymore. Ever since coming to Gregory more than six years ago, she said she has known that the school needed to have its traffic and parking situation fixed. She is “thrilled” that it has finally happened.
Ken Alper, chairman of the Gregory PTA’s traffic safety committee, agreed that he feels a “wonderful sense of relief and accomplishment” now that the driveway and lot are finished. Alper said the completed project looks “great,” and that he is especially impressed by how quickly and unobtrusively it was done. He said he is grateful to the township for working with the school district to make it happen.
Above all, Alper said he is glad that the buses will no longer be near the children during drop-off and pickup times, correcting a safety issue that has plagued the school for decades.
“The growth in the student population at Gregory over the past years has been really significant,” Alper told the Chronicle in a Sept. 3 email. “The set-ups that worked a generation ago in a 300-student school, with a lot fewer kids coming by bus, weren’t just ineffective today with 550 students — they were dangerous.”
But not everyone is happy. West Orange Planning Board member Jerry Eben, a vocal critic of the project, said he disapproved of the way the work was supervised. According to Eben, workers did not wear protective clothing during construction and sometimes left exposed reinforcement and deep excavations open. That is in addition to the spruce that was incorrectly removed and the fact that a silt fence was not immediately put up at the site.
Eben also pointed out that JTG never placed ADA sidewalk pads at either end of the driveway, so visually impaired people walking in front of the school may not know they are near a driveway opening. But Casalino said special-needs students are being dropped off at a ramped side entrance near the staff parking lot.
Aside from those issues, Eben also has some safety concerns with the new layout. Particularly, he said that the driveway exit is only 35 feet from the Walker Road intersection, which could be dangerous for people crossing the street. And turning left onto South Valley Road from Lawrence Avenue might be difficult considering that the bottom of the street is steep and cars often park on both sides of the road.
Resident Susan Scarpa also is concerned about the students’ safety in addition to the effect the driveway might have on Gregory Avenue. As Gregory is already a busy county road, Scarpa said putting large buses there could make the existing congestion even worse. Plus, she said the kiss-and-go lane might not move all that quickly. As a speech language therapist at Redwood Elementary School, Scarpa said she sees firsthand that students take their time exiting their parents’ vehicles at her school’s kiss-and-go lane, and that staff enforcement will be key to making the lane effective.
“Let’s just hope that it all works out,” Scarpa told the Chronicle in a Sept. 5 phone interview.
Photos by Sean Quinn