Neighbors fume over school project

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(File photo)

As school officials move ahead with plans to rebuild the Jefferson-Houston School, jilted neighbors say their concerns about the project have fallen on deaf ears.

Despite a series of community meetings stretching back to September — the most recent held Monday evening — Parker-Gray residents like Daniel Schuman and Dino Drudi argue school officials have been unresponsive and less than transparent with the planning process.

“We’re trying to make evaluations based on incomplete information — we don’t even have the basic facts,” Schuman said. “There hasn’t been a conversation that deals with the basic questions people have.”

Neighbors have taken school officials to task once before, when the idea of using a public-private partnership to pay for the school fueled resident concerns about density, open space and traffic congestion. Officials ultimately shelved the idea in favor of a taxpayer-driven project.

It’s like the film “Groundhog Day,” but so far without the happy ending, Schuman said.

School board member Helen Morris disagrees with Schuman’s description of the process, pointing to the multiple community meetings and a key communicators committee, which includes neighborhood representatives. Communications could always be better, she said, but planners are listening to residents.

The most recent spat flared up between the January and February community meetings. Officials initially presented residents with seven options, some showing the bulk of the new, multistory building facing Cameron Street and others placing it along North West Street.

When they met Monday, school officials returned with just three drawings, all of which anchored the building along North West Street, said Leslie Zupan, president of the West Old Town Citizens Association.

Schuman worries orienting the enlarged building along North West Street will increase congestion, create safety risks, lower private property values and generally disrupt the neighborhood. He was one of several residents to draw up a competing plan, which keeps the bulk of Jefferson-Houston along Cameron Street.

But razing the existing building leaves one insurmountable problem for school administrators: What to do with the students? Staff couldn’t find classroom space in the city to temporarily house the school’s student body, Morris said, which led them to propose the North West Street plans. Building there keeps the school open until work is finished, she said.

Drudi, another neighbor concerned about the project’s impact, draws comparisons to the controversial waterfront plan — now heading to court after months of delay and contentious debate — just with a different city agency.

“It’s how they do business,” he said. “Decision first, facts afterward.”

Schuman won’t go as far as Drudi in comparing the two projects. He’s optimistic neighbors and officials can reach an understanding.

“We’re hoping that by being reasonable the school will make somewhat of an effort to meet us halfway” he said. “If they don’t, there are a lot of people in the community that are going to be unhappy.”

Jefferson-Houston, estimated to cost $41 million when finished in 2014, is the first of several city public schools slated to undergo renovation in the coming years. Planning and work at Patrick Henry is scheduled to begin in 2014 and at Cora Kelly in 2016.

Officials cite the district’s ballooning student population and small, aging buildings as the primary drivers behind the construction work.