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Brainerd: School district scales down proposed parking lots

Brainerd School Board members Reed Campbell (left), Ruth Nelson and Tom Haglin look over documents during the board's joint session with the Brainerd City Council Tuesday, Dec. 4, at city hall. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Compromise is brewing in Brainerd.

City council and school board members are beginning to see eye-to-eye on school parking needs.

Mild disagreement still remains, but council members are prepared to vote on updated off-street parking proposals for school facilities next week.

"Although I don't like parking lots and don't like some of the ones that (the district is) proposing, I do really appreciate that we've come this far," council member Dave Badeaux said during a joint city council school board meeting Tuesday, Dec. 4, at city hall. "I think that what you've shown here is an unbelievable step in the right direction."

With all members present except Chris Robinson, the Brainerd School Board walked council members and city staff through their revised plans for street changes and parking additions at Brainerd High School and Garfield, Harrison and Lowell elementary schools.

If the council agrees to the designs brought forward, the district will look to acquire 10 fewer properties than originally planned. Two properties were axed from the acquisition list near Garfield, two near Lowell, four near Harrison, and two near Brainerd High School, including property belonging to attorney Ed Shaw and Rod Knowles, who have both spoken publicly against the district's acquisition process.

Knowles, who lives at the corner of South Fifth and Quince streets, shared concerns in September about having to move his 2,000-square-foot greenhouse, which is home to hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of orchids. Moving the greenhouse would prove difficult, Knowles said, also noting the unattractiveness of an asphalt parking lot in that residential neighborhood.

When the governing bodies met in November, the school district presented its parking plans and said it was operating under an old city ordinance mandating a minimum amount of parking for schools. The city removed the minimum requirement from that ordinance in January, though a punctuation error created confusion, school board members said, on the meaning. After clearing the air in November and talking through parking and safety concerns, board members and district officials agreed to revise plans without taking the now-outdated parking requirements into account.

Garfield Elementary

Properties to be acquired decreased from four to two. A proposed parking lot near the corner of 11th Avenue and L Street decreased from 65 spots to 27, plus two spots designated as accessible parking. Two accessible spots would also be added to L Street. Bus pick-up/drop-off would remain on 10th Avenue. Both the school board and council agreed Garfield already has a functional parent pick-up/drop-off procedure, but a parking lot would give staff members a place to park, freeing up street spots for visitors and volunteers.

Harrison Elementary

The 14 original properties to be acquired decreased to 12 parcels with eight owners, knocking off four properties on the west side of the school from the list. A proposed parking lot on the corner of Oak and 16th streets decreased from 40 spots to 36, plus two spots designated as accessible parking. The district would designate 15th Street for parent pick-up/drop-off and special education bus drop-off, and would likely ask the city to make the street one way. The bus pick-up/drop-off area would be on Norwood Street on the north side of the school at the new entrance.

Lowell Elementary

Properties to be acquired decreased from five to three. A proposed parking lot on Third Avenue between H and G streets decreased from 58 spots to 37, plus two spots designated as accessible parking. The plan also proposes the city change G Street to a one-way and add a lane for parent pick-up/drop-off to mitigate parents dropping kids off on the opposite side of the street and having them cross traffic to get to school.

Brainerd High School

The four original properties to be acquired decreased to two parcels with one owner. A proposed parking lot taking up nearly two blocks between South Fifth and Sixth streets decreased from 320 spots to 284, plus 15 spots designated as accessible parking. That lot, board member Ruth Nelson said, comes very close to the estimated 300 spots needed for the new performing arts center.

The high school plans also include a vacation of Pine Street between South Fifth and Sixth streets and measures to help calm traffic on South Fifth Street, including curving the road to slow traffic down and three designated crosswalks for pedestrians.

Lingering concerns

With the plans drawn out, Badeaux asked about parent drop-off procedures, specifically at Harrison and Lowell elementary schools where staff and parents have testified to seeing students dropped off in the middle of the road, and if the district can talk with parents about dropping their kids off safely.

Board member Tom Haglin said something like that is hard to enforce, but designated drop-off areas with the correct signage will help. Council member Dave Pritschet agreed.

"A planned procedure designed to accommodate drop-off will hopefully be better than the norms that have built up around these schools," Pritschet said.

Badeaux said the lot at Garfield concerned him because the pick-up/drop-off process there already works so well.

"I don't like the notion of fixing what isn't broken," he said.

Council member Gabe Johnson advised the school district to also keep in mind safety measures for students who walk to school, though noting the responsibility for safe pedestrian facilities falls somewhat on the city as well.

City Administrator Cassandra Torstenson advised the school district continue working with City Engineer Paul Sandy on road configurations, especially South Fifth Street near the high school, to make sure safety, traffic and snow removal are all taken into consideration.

Agreement

"I really have to commend the board for spending a great deal amount of time ... to look at these properties, to take into consideration the issues that the city council had brought forward and the needs the district had brought forward," Superintendent Laine Larson said near the end of the meeting. "And so I'm pleased to hear some of the things you're saying tonight because I really want you to understand the good faith effort that the board of education has put forth to try to find a consensus."

Johnson said he supported moving forward with the plans the district laid out, but council members were leary of conducting an official vote during a special council meeting. Because there was no public forum component at Tuesday's joint meeting, council member Jan Lambert said the council should not vote until the public has a chance to give input.

With the school district already running behind schedule on projects after a proposed moratorium threatened to discontinue the demolition of structurally sound buildings to create parking, Haglin and Larson asked for a council decision sooner rather than later, also noting many property owners are currently in limbo, not knowing what is going to happen with their homes.

The council tabled that moratorium in November, and seemed to reach a consensus Tuesday not to revisit the issue.

Council members agreed they could vote on the school district's plans during their Truth and Taxation hearing at 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 10. With a school board meeting set for the same time, the bodies agreed the city council would act on the measure at the beginning of its meeting, while the school board would put it near the end. That way, the bodies can have some form of communication that night, and the school board will be able to know before its meeting is over if it can move forward with plans.