The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools agreed Monday to conditions aimed at resolving traffic concerns and won Town Council approval for its pre-K and high school campus on South Merritt Mill Road.
Council members delayed the vote last month over concerns about potential traffic congestion on Merritt Mill Road. However, they voted 6-1 Monday to allow the $22.62 million Lincoln Center redevelopment project. Council members Ed Harrison and Jessica Anderson were absent.
Council member Maria Palmer rejected the project, citing her continued concerns about how pre-K students who live across town and lack transportation would get to school. Palmer also opposed the council’s Feb. 27 decision to rezone the 12.6-acre parcel from residential to conditional office and institutional use.
“I believe that Chapel Hill can build and maintain a safe, accessible and first-class preschool that serve all our children, not just those with private transportation whose parents have the time to drive across town,” Palmer said.
The district will demolish the historic Lincoln Center school and replace it with a consolidated preschool serving up to 300 students. The move is expected to create more seats for older students in local schools, delaying the need for a new elementary school by a decade, school officials said.
Todd LoFrese, the district’s assistant superintendent for support services, suggested a 16-passenger van now used to take preschoolers who attend exceptional classes to school might be available to help with other transportation needs. That transportation is not available for all students now.
The two-story pre-K building also will house district offices and an African-American history museum. A new Phoenix Academy High School will be housed in an adjacent building and serve up to 100 more students. The county is using a voter-approved bond to pay for the construction.
LoFrese said the district will stagger arrival and departure times to limit the number of cars trying to access the parking lots at one time. Most pre-K students – roughly 145 – could arrive between 8 a.m. and Phoenix Academy’s 8:45 a.m. start time, he said. Pre-K students leave before the high school day ends.
He noted that 85 of 356 planned parking spaces would serve pre-K parents, and the preschool’s driveway could hold 51 more cars. The high school has its own entrance and parking lot.
Council member George Cianciolo pressed for the district to build a right-turn lane now to head off problems from heavier future traffic. It could be dangerous if southbound drivers try to pass cars waiting to turn right into the schools by driving in the center turn lane, where parents are waiting to turn left, he said.
“Nothing I’ve heard changes my mind, in terms of thinking that a right turn lane now is the best option, because it will provide benefits from the very beginning,” he said. “Even if we’re assuming (there won’t be issues), getting turning cars out of the travel lane is a real advantage.”
Project engineer Blake Hall estimated a right turn lane could cost the district $75,000 to $100,000. LoFrese said the district is willing to do that, and also:
▪ Update the council on traffic conditions in six months
▪ Pay for another traffic study if traffic conditions warrant one at that time
▪ Work with the town to develop and implement improvements if the traffic study finds problems
▪ Submit any proposed changes for council approval, and work with the council to schedule any changes
▪ Return to the council for approval if over 300 pre-K students enroll
The town could seek civil penalties and a court order requiring additional road work if the district refuses to complete future improvements, Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos said.
The approved plan also adds pedestrian crosswalks to South Merritt Mill Road and a traffic signal at the intersection with the N.C. 54 off-ramp.