After an extensive discussion Monday about traffic and parking at a redeveloped Lincoln Center campus, the Town Council delayed a vote on the city school district project to March 13.
However, the council voted 8-1 to rezone the 12.6-acre parcel on South Merritt Mill Road to conditional office and institutional uses – the first step toward possible approval. Councilwoman Maria Palmer cast the dissenting vote, citing concerns about how children who live across town and lack transportation would get to school.
The $22.62 million project, if approved, would create the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district’s first consolidated preschool for up to 300 students, new district offices and an expanded Phoenix Academy High School for up to 100 students.
The new preschool could provide better classrooms for preschool students now housed in mobile units or in classrooms design for older children, district officials said. It will open up seats for older students, delaying the construction of a new elementary school by a decade, they said, and provide more collaboration and training opportunities for pre-K teachers.
The historic Lincoln Center school would be demolished, but the new building would have an African-American museum.
The county will pay for the project with bond money that voters approved in November.
While roughly a dozen citizens spoke about the project’s benefits for Phoenix Academy students and teachers, the primary focus for the council was traffic on and off school grounds.
Councilwoman Sally Greene noted there were pledges to manage traffic when St. Thomas More Catholic Church and School sought to expand. Without more details, Greene said, she might not support the Lincoln Center project.
“I’m still dealing with the effect of the decision at the St. Thomas More School on 15-501, which at 3 o’clock or so every weekday afternoon is just a tremendous traffic mess, which I often have to navigate, and I was a council member who approved that,” Greene said.
District officials attempted to reassure the council, noting that 85 of 350 parking spaces would be available for preschool parents, and 45 cars could line up in the planned driveway. Pickup and dropoff times would be staggered, they said.
A separate parking lot, with its own entrance, would provide parking for the high school.
Council members were not convinced that would prevent traffic from spilling onto Merritt Mill Road. Councilman Michael Parker suggested the district enlist experts and find other options or work out a way to trigger automatic solutions to future traffic problems.
Town attorney Ralph Karpinos suggested a third option: Require the district to submit a new traffic impact study one year after the schools open and every three years after that. The council could approve any solutions to problems identified by those studies, he said.
Councilwoman Maria Palmer, who worried a central preschool might increase disparities and transportation problems for at-risk and low-income students, asked district officials to consider transportation for a sizable number of students.
She noted that some parents and students who rely on public transportation could spend an hour or more, twice a day, riding a bus and walking to the Lincoln Center.
“I have a very hard time thinking that our school district cannot think of a way to provide transportation for at least a third of the children, especially the kids that are going to come from across town and the families of preschoolers who don’t have a parent with a driver’s license or a working vehicle.”