MANCHESTER — About 30 area residents converged on the Jackie Parks Room at the Manchester Elementary Middle School last Wednesday, Jan. 6, to hear about the alternatives under consideration by town and school officials for an overhaul of the parking areas, sidewalks and playing fields around the school.
The three primary goals of the proposed project are to improve student, pedestrian and vehicle safety along Memorial Avenue where students are dropped off and picked up before and after school; to improve the overall functionality and use of the properties collectively owned by the school district and town, and enhance the overall streetscape and landscape around MEMS, according to a presentation shown to the audience.
During a previous meeting held last May, residents identified several concerns with the current set up of the street and drop off of students. They included vehicles which traveled too fast as School Street merged into Memorial Avenue and that the current Main Street crosswalk was unsafe. Adding a crosswalk on Bonnet Street to allow pedestrians to cross over near the intersection of School Street was also offered as a suggestion, as was obtaining more room for larger vehicles to maneuver in.
A scoping study, funded by a state VTrans Bicycle and Pedestrian grant, produced a proposal that would create a roundabout in front of MEMS, where parents and other drivers dropping off students could do so. Memorial Avenue would be reconfigured to traverse an existing parking lot owned by the town on the edge of the large playing field on the other side of Memorial Avenue from the school building. In a zig-zag course, the avenue would skirt around the side of the field, and connect with School Street. Part of the existing athletic field would be converted for municipal parking, with an estimated 73 parking spaces, and the rest would remain as a playing field.
Additional parking for school busses and personnel totalling 58 spaces would also be created in an area on the western side of the school in the vicinity where the school's outdoor basketball courts currently sit. School Street would also continue in a straight line directly into the existing lane which runs along that side of the school.
The big advantage of terminating the part of Memorial Avenue that runs in front of the school is that students would never have to cross a street, whether they were arriving or leaving school, or going out for a recess or an activity on one of the school's playing fields, said Town Manager John O'Keefe during the presentations.
Two other alternatives for installing crosswalks on Bonnet street and Main Street, differing mainly in the size of a "bump out" or curb extensions, built-out areas from the sidewalk, that would narrow the width of the streets but which mean a shorter distance for students and pedestrians to cross, were also shown to the audience. Much of the comment centered on the parking spaces that would have to be eliminated to accommodate the proposed "bump outs."
Some members of the audience expressed support for some of the ideas, others, including one of the immediate neighbors, Alberta Harrington, brought an alternative diagram to suggest how the streetscape could be changed. Kathe Dillmann urged the committee involved with designing the proposal to upgrade the bicycle features to encourage more bike use, while expressing skepticism about the current proposal, calling it "gigantic overkill." Others expressed concern about losing so much of the current greenspace of the playing fields for municipal parking.
The project is not one that is likely to enter a "front burner" status anytime soon, O'Keefe said later in a follow up interview. Cost estimates and funding sources still need to be finalized, and he is hoping for more public input, possibly to come at a joint meeting of the select board and school board that might occur this spring. Both need to be involved because both the town and school own portions of the property involved in the redesign of the Memorial Avenue/School Street parcel, he said.
Meanwhile, the team of individuals who have been working on the redesign will be meeting again to process some of the public comments and ideas, he said.
"At some point we need to get all of the decision makers in one room and talk about it — talk about the need for it and the perceived need for it," he said, adding that developing firm cost estimates would then become a next step.
School officials have long been troubled by the apparent lack of consistent safety for school children crossing Memorial Avenue or being dropped off in the vicinity of the school. While there hasn't been a serious accident so far, concerns have been raised about the haphazard parking and traffic arrangements which have evolved from an earlier era when most children either walked to school or rode a school bus. Many more are being driven by parents today.
A comprehensive solution to all the issues currently in play would not be inexpensive, O'Keefe said.
"We took a comprehensive look at all those issues and tried to get one solution that addresses them all," he said. "But as you stack up one solution after another, each solution has its price," he said.