Planned Gregory School upgrades have supporters, detractors

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The concept plan for the bus loop and parking lot expansion proposed for Gregory Elementary School was presented to area residents during a community meeting held at the West Orange Public Library on March 16; but many homeowners who live in the school’s vicinity are still concerned about the project, and not just due to the $375,000 the West Orange Township Council bonded for it.

Speaking with the West Orange Chronicle, engineer J. Michael Petry explained that his concept plan consists of placing a one-way bus loop in front of the school facing Gregory Avenue, with the option to include up to 10 faculty parking spaces along that driveway. Additionally, the staff parking lot will be expanded to include 74 spaces instead of the current 51.

Proponents of the plan believe the bus loop will help alleviate the longstanding traffic issues that exist in the mornings and afternoons by taking the buses off of Lowell Avenue — where parents are also dropping off or picking up their children — and having a dedicated “kiss and go” lane in its stead, making drop-off and pickup a seamless process. Additionally, they say the parking lot expansion will mean fewer teachers will have to park on the street, thereby freeing up more room for vehicles to get through.

But not everyone believes the improvements will have such a beneficial effect. In fact, Gregory Avenue resident Heidi Sawyer said she thinks the bus loop will actually make the “pretty bad” traffic congestion that currently exists on Gregory even worse during drop-off and pickup times.

“Motorists, as it is, refuse to let people — specifically any residents on Gregory Avenue — exit out of their driveway when we have to go to work southbound, so we typically have to go around the block,” Sawyer told the Chronicle in a March 17 phone interview. “So if you put all those buses, and my understanding is that there are approximately four buses, in this huge driveway, and there are cars that are backed up for two blocks — how is this going to work?”

Sawyer said a major reason for the existing traffic tie-up is the fact that many parents either ignore the three-minute parking rule or double park on Lowell Avenue, which prevents vehicles from dropping off or picking up children in a timely fashion, also blocking the roadway for cars who wish to drive down the street. She suggested having a police presence at the school every day to reprimand parents who break the law and demonstrate that the school is serious about parking enforcement. She also said parents should be encouraged to park on adjacent side streets and walk their children to the school, thus freeing up Lowell and reducing the amount of air pollution in the area.

Traffic is not the only issue Sawyer is concerned about, though. By removing trees to make room for the bus loop, she said that she is worried storm water will run off onto her property and the properties of other homeowners on Gregory Avenue and beyond. As a former Beautification Committee chairwoman for the school, she said she has done a lot of gardening and knows that the soil in the area is rich with clay, which does not easily absorb water. In fact, she said her yard already gets very wet when it rains, so she is concerned the problem will become even worse if there is not something like a catch basin to collect the runoff.

Petry said he will include a storm water management system in his more comprehensive final plan, saying that the plan presented during the March 16 meeting was just a basic preliminary drawing. He said he expects the full design plan to be ready by April and possibly go before the West Orange Planning Board in May. At this point, he said he does not know how many trees will have to be taken down for the driveway.

Above all, Sawyer said she is concerned about the well-being of the children who attend the Gregory School because she is not so sure this plan is safe. For instance, she said there is a chance that students walking to or from school may pass by the bus loop, which could be dangerous with buses coming in and out. Principal Michelle Thompson stated during the meeting that staff members will be stationed at the front of the school and by the Lowell Avenue entrance to make sure all children are safe, but Sawyer said the increased personnel presence is only indicative that the new design is even more dangerous than the current one.

“You’re telling me that we’re all doing this for safety, but it’s turning out that you have to have more adults involved (to ensure that) safety,” Sawyer said. “You’re better off sticking with what you’ve got and saving the township over $300,000.”

Sawyer is not the only resident coming out against the concept plan. Planning Board member Jerry Eben, who lives on nearby Walker Road, also said he has some reservations. Besides the possibility that the bus loop will cause a storm water runoff problem, Eben said it will also completely disrupt residents’ view of the front of the school, which the professional architect said is a beautiful building built approximately 100 years ago.

“It’s a pretty building, it really is,” Eben told the Chronicle in a March 17 phone interview. “It would be a shame to block it with a retaining wall and chain link fence just to solve a school bus problem.

“I think there are other solutions,” he continued, adding that the school officials “should sit down with their professionals and work it out and come up with a better plan.”

Like Sawyer, Eben said he thinks the real traffic issue is parents ignoring parking rules and taking up space on Lowell Avenue. He suggested eliminating the grass strip and moving the curb over so buses and parent cars will be parked farther to the side, allowing other vehicles to drive freely down the road. And while he believes the parking lot expansion in a good idea, he said 74 spaces will not be able to hold all staff vehicles. Therefore, he suggested either holding a lottery or having the least senior teachers park on side streets to free up the roads closest to the school.

But not everyone shares these concerns. Ken Alper, chairman of the Gregory PTA Traffic Safety Committee, said the concept plan represents the school’s best chance of relieving traffic concerns while also keeping the student population safe. This is because, as Alper told the Chronicle, the problem is not parents disobeying parking rules on Lowell Avenue. In fact, he said he does not think this is a significant issue; he added that parents and teachers already park on side streets.

The real heart of the problem, Alper said, is that the school is dealing with 2016-level numbers of people and vehicles on a 1914 roadway infrastructure.

“We’ve got about 525 students and around 100 staff members at Gregory, which is easily twice what it was within just recent memory, and accommodating that volume is difficult to do safely on these narrow side streets,” Alper said in a March 18 email. “This plan goes a long way toward producing a true safe route to school for every Gregory student.”

Alper said that, in addition to freeing up Lowell Avenue for a quick-moving kiss-and-go lane, removing buses from Lowell will be safer for the children since the bus loop delivers them directly to the school’s front door. This means they will be less likely to slip on ice or encounter other hazards when walking the greater distance from the bus to the Lowell entrance, and teachers escorting the students off the bus can keep a better eye on them than if the buses were to arrive in the same area as the children walking or being dropped off.

Board of Education President Laura Lab additionally pointed out that it is much safer in general for the children to exit the bus onto school property instead of onto a roadway, especially considering the bus loop will have a barrier separating the school from the street.

Plus, Lab said, freeing up Lowell Avenue will make it safer for parents to drop their children off as well.

“The buses will not be in the mix on Lowell Avenue, thereby allowing much greater opportunities for parents to drop and go instead of waiting for an opportunity to actually pull up to the curb,” Lab told the Chronicle in a March 20 email. “My understanding is that some parents double park due to the lack of room to get to the curb, creating an even more dangerous situation for the children entering and exiting the vehicles (on the street).”

The issue of children walking in the area of the bus driveway should not be a problem, Alper said, because students would not have a reason to pass through the area. The chairman said most students who could go in that direction take the more direct path of crossing Gregory Avenue at Walker Road with the crossing guard before going up the sidewalk and proceeding to the school entrance around back. Besides, Alper said the school will use its resources to make sure all are safe no matter how they approach the school.

As for removing the trailers used for some classes to further expand the parking lot — which some opponents of the plan, including Sawyer, have suggested as a possible solution for the traffic backup instead of the bus loop — Lab said the notion is simply not feasible. She said Gregory does not have enough classrooms to contain its more than 500 students and without the trailers, which are approved annually by the state Department of Education, the school would have no place for many children.

Overall, Councilwoman Michelle Casalino said she is satisfied with the concept plan. Casalino, who hosted the meeting in her capacity as council liaison to the Board of Education, said it certainly seems better than the one proposed for Gregory in 2007 when she was on the school board, which basically added a lane in front of the school instead of a loop on school grounds.

Though she hopes Petry will take some of the residents’ suggestions into consideration when designing his final plan for the improvements, Casalino said she thinks what she has seen so far has a good chance of working.

“I do believe that between the plan presented and the school administration redirecting the way parents drop off students, this will be beneficial to the community,” Casalino told the Chronicle in a March 18 phone interview. “I’m optimistic.”

Councilman Joe Krakoviak, who voted against bonding for the project, told the Chronicle he was pleased that there is still a possibility of changing the plan because he has a few concerns. Namely, Krakoviak said he is worried the cost of the project might exceed the $375,000 in bonds, especially when considering the expense of implementing a storm water management system to counteract the loss of several mature trees. He said he is also concerned about allowing buses to make a left turn into the school against what he believes will be heavy traffic, which is a component of the plan, and the effect this will have on the neighboring streets.

Most of all, Krakoviak said he wonders whether Gregory school students can be protected without the major changes the plan would implement.

“The question for me is can we address these safety concerns with better enforcement and compliance — without resorting to the large project expense and potential broader disruption for neighbors,” Krakoviak said in a March 21 email.

Whatever happens with this plan, Alper promised that the residents living near the school will be kept in the loop moving forward — something many neighbors complained was not the case when ideas for the concept plan were being developed. The chairman explained that it was never the PTA’s intention to exclude them; rather, he said many of the PTA members including himself are unfamiliar with council and planning procedures and thus did not know when the best time was to seek public input. But he stressed that the community will be a vital part of the process now that the final design plan is being drawn up.

“I’m glad they’re part of the process and able to contribute their input,” Alper said. “We want to do as much as possible to have the best possible solution to the problems here.”

Principal Thompson and Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky did not respond to requests for comment before press time March 22.