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More parking at Brainerd schools? City, school leaders discuss

Brainerd City Council and school district representatives met Tuesday, Nov. 13, to discuss the district's property acquisition proposal and the need for more parking around elementary schools. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Disptach

Are parking lots the key to keeping children safe?

Brainerd School District officials say yes. City council representatives are leary. But exchanges between the two groups remained civil as the district's proposal to add parking lots to Harrison, Garfield and Lowell elementary schools was the focal point of a joint meeting among representatives of both the school district and the city council Tuesday, Nov. 13.

City council member Dave Badeaux praised the school district, opining it's the best in the state.

School district Superintendent Laine Larson liked seeing everyone's passion for making the community the best it can be.

But differences between how the groups see the situation remain. Elementary principals cited student safety concerns, while Badeaux pointed to a lack of data supporting the need for parking lots as the answer.

With the safety of children going to and from school in mind, the school district has plans to acquire 27 properties—some near the elementary schools—to use as parking lots. On the other side of the issue, the city council is considering a moratorium on demolishing buildings to create parking. Both topics have sparked community concern over the last couple months.

Members of both groups represented at the Washington Educational Services Building Tuesday tried to understand where each party was coming from.

Safety concerns and parking needs

District officials and board members shared their plans at the joint meeting for increased parking—including off-street lots—around the elementary schools and Brainerd High School. When these plans were made, the district was operating under the city's previous parking ordinance requiring a minimum number of off-street parking spaces for schools. The city, however, amended that ordinance in January to eliminate the minimum requirements for schools. City Administrator Cassandra Torstenson said some district officials were notified of the potential change in December, though Larson and the school board were not immediately aware at the time.

City officials later realized a grammatical error in the ordinance caused confusion about parking requirements around schools. A misplaced comma in the ordinance mandated off-street parking requirements for "schools, colleges and universities." Instead, the subhead for the section should have said "Schools; colleges and universities," meaning the parking minimums only applied to colleges and universities.

Despite the error, City Planner Mark Ostgarden said the city made the intent of the ordinance change abundantly clear during the process—that intent being to eliminate minimum parking requirements for schools.

The Dispatch reported on the city council's intent to change the ordinance in an article Jan. 4, 2018. When asked about the potential ordinance change, Larson expressed concerns about on-street parking at the elementary schools and noted children's safety as a chief concern with the current configuration of designated drop-off/pick-up areas.

Stating they were operating under the previous ordinance, district officials came up with a plan to add 67 off-street parking spots at Garfield Elementary, 60 at Lowell, 42 at Harrison and 350 at BHS by acquiring property around all schools and modifying or vacating streets around all except Garfield. Even more parking will likely be needed near the high school with the future addition of a 1,200-seat performing arts center, which was passed as part of the referendum.

The increased parking needs at the elementary schools are attributed to both safety and space concerns. Cathy Nault, Jodi Kennedy and Todd Sauer—principals at Harrison, Garfield and Lowell elementary schools, respectively—sat in the audience during the meeting but testified to their schools' needs when called upon.

When winter comes and snow accumulates near curbs, Nault said cars are pushed out into the street farther and parents are essentially dropping students off in the middle of the road. Harrison is also a transfer site for buses, meaning Harrison students and students from other schools are getting on and off buses, which increases traffic congestion.

Nault also emphasized her concerns have nothing to do with the convenience of parking close to the school but are truly related to safety.

A concern for Kennedy at Garfield, along with safety issues surrounding the pick-up/drop-off congestion, is the lack of parking spaces for volunteers, parents or other visitors coming to the school for special events like concerts or other various activities throughout the school year.

Sauer echoed Nault's concerns about parents dropping kids off in the middle of the street and piled-up snow essentially making roads one-way when cars are parked on them. There's also a lack of parking for daily volunteers or other visitors to the school.

Adding staff parking lots to the schools would reduce street parking, leading to less congestion for parents dropping off and picking up students, and would allow visitors to use the street spaces if needed.

City council response

All parties agreed upon the importance of maintaining neighborhood schools. Council member Badeaux referred to the neighborhood schools as the "No. 1 greatest thing we have in our area." He said it's clear that staff members genuinely care for their students and make sure they don't fall behind.

However, Badeaux said he can't reconcile the need for additional parking lots. The houses around the elementary schools, he said, are what make them neighborhood schools. And tearing down some of those houses, he added, would be counterintuitive.

Badeaux also questioned the notion of parking lots increasing student safety. He said he has spent a significant amount of time researching safety statistics around neighborhood schools. The stats, he said, show those schools are generally very safe. In terms of Garfield, Harrison and Lowell, Badeaux said Minnesota Department of Transportation crash reports show there have been very few crashes—single digits at each school—in the last 12 years.

"Accidents aren't happening at these schools," he said. "If we're going to say safety, that's fine, but then I need numbers. I need numbers and I need information that says why this is safer."

Badeaux went on to assure district officials the city does not want to fight them but simply wants to make sure everyone is on the same page. Not speaking for the council as a whole, but giving his individual opinion, he said it's time to stop designing things so everyone can park their cars right next to a building and not have to walk.

"Because what happens then is you're going to have less buildings. You're going to have less housing. You're going to have less businesses, and that's not a sustainable model for the city," said Badeaux, who was joined at the meeting by council members Jan Lambert and Kelly Bevans.

School board member Bob Nystrom chimed in with the idea of the finished schools—with all their updates—being an economic driver and increase the demand for housing in those neighborhoods.

Nystrom was joined with fellow school board member Tom Haglin.

Superintendent remarks

Larson said she was glad to hear about how everyone feels on the issue. "Truly everyone here today as a great passion for the school district and for the city of Brainerd," she said. "And ultimately we're all here for the same reason—because we want to continue to make Brainerd the best it can be."

Larson then mentioned the four years of work and hundreds of planning sessions, informational sessions and community input meetings that went into the district's referendum plan. The No. 1 concerns residents brought forward during those input sessions, she said, was safety and security. The board then developed plans around the goal of safety, which included separating bus and parent pick-up/drop-off locations and adding parking around the neighborhood schools.

"The school district completed four years of work ... believing that they had the right plan," she said. "And so by the beginning of December last year, 2017, the board of education felt that they had listened to the public, that they had developed the plan that was going to meet those objectives that we talked about."

The school board approved the final plan in December.

"I feel like we've made this promise to the public. This is what the public voted on, and that we have a responsibility to carry out the wishes of the public," Larson said.

After the meeting Ed Shaw, whose law office is one of the properties on the district's acquisition list, spoke to the Brainerd Dispatch, challenging the notion the parking plan was included in the referendum plan.

Larson's response to the Dispatch was the specifics were not in the plan but the need for additional parking was. Before the referendum passed, she said, the district only had so many resources to do research and couldn't get into any specifics until after it was passed. She said the district always noted on its diagrams how much parking was needed but could not yet say where it would be.

Fiscal impact

Torstenson presented documents showing the potential impact on the city's estimated market value if the district acquires the 27 properties on its list. Based on property values, she estimated the total taxes paid by those properties to be about $29,300 annually. If the district acquires those properties, Torstenson said that tax money doesn't go away but instead gets redistributed to other taxpayers, which could impact taxes for other property owners.

Removing those 27 properties also lowers the city's estimated market value, she said, which lowers the city's bond cap, meaning it affects the amount of money the city could borrow for infrastructure or other projects.

While talking about fiscal impact, Badeaux said he wanted it known the fact the district will be spending more than $100 million in Brainerd with referendum projects is not lost on the city. He said he recognizes that economic value.

Working together

By the end of the meeting, both bodies agreed to work together to find compromises and solutions in the best interests of students, staff and the city as a whole. They also agreed to separate the elementary schools from the high school when discussing pick-up/drop-off concerns and needs because they are very different. A suggestion Badeaux made for parking at the high school is to make use of parking spaces at the public library, noting the city owns the lot north of the library and leases it at only about 20 percent capacity. The city and district could work with the library on how to better use some of those parking spaces while possibly incorporating the library in with the school more.

School board member Haglin agreed with both treating the elementary schools and BHS differently and looking at working with the library on parking.

The consensus reached at the end of the meeting was for the full city council to review Torstenson's information on the impact to the city's market value, while the district re-examines plans for the elementary schools, now knowing there are not minimum parking restrictions required. Those gathered then agreed to set up another public meeting with those present to discuss where they're at.

Torstenson told the Dispatch after the meeting of the city's full support of the district's project, emphasizing the city's desire to make sure everyone is on the same page to get the best possible outcome for the Brainerd community.

Property acquisition background

In September, the district notified owners of 27 properties around Brainerd High School and Garfield, Lowell and Harrison elementary schools of its desire to acquire those properties for site improvements after the successful April referendum.

Since a public hearing at the end of September, property owners affected by the potential acquisition voiced opinions—both for and against—regarding the process. Some residents were concerned about the small amount of information they received on the project, while others agreed to comply with whatever district officials feel is safest for students and staff.

Proposed moratorium

On Oct. 17, the Brainerd Planning Commission voted at its meeting to recommend the city pass a one-year moratorium on demolishing structurally sound buildings for the creation of off-street parking within certain residential and commercial districts.

Commission member Chuck Marohn championed the measure, saying during the meeting and a subsequent city council meeting his intent was to take a timeout on the district's acquisition plans and figure out what the best long-term scenario is for the city, as he felt activity was moving too fast.

With concerns about the moratorium delaying the district's plans, school board member Nystrom suggested a joint meeting with council and board members to discuss the matter.

The city council has not yet voted on the proposed moratorium.