Tensions were high last Monday night when talks commenced about a potential high-rise parking garage in Bridesburg.
The Bridesburg Community Action Alliance hosted a meeting on Jan. 6 about a four-story parking garage proposed by Franklin Towne Charter Elementary School, 4259 Richmond St.
About two dozen residents attended the meeting.
Many nearby neighbors took the opportunity to offer a litany of concerns and complaints regarding the school, from parents dumping trash on residential properties and the street, to parked cars being struck, to school buses blocking traffic, to property values decreasing.
Stephanie Boggs, the attorney representing the school, provided basic details about the project before fielding frustrations and questions from residents.
“We are neighbors, and there is absolutely no respect from the school,” one resident said.
“This project is the school’s intention to fix the problems,” Boggs responded. “The goal is to keep cars off the street. We’re building the garage because of the need for off-site parking.”
Currently, a paved surface parking lot with 74 accessory off-street parking spaces exists behind the school, bordered by Bristol and Bath streets.
The parcel is zoned CA-2 and by right, FTCES can construct a parking garage up to 38 feet tall.
Richmond Street Community Development Corporation, the owner and developer of FTCES, filed a zoning permit application seeking a variance for the height of the parking garage in early October.
The proposed four-story garage measures at 48.5 feet in a commercial zoning district that allows for 38 feet maximum.
Precast panels were designed to be built tall enough to keep the headlights from vehicles using the parking garage out of the houses facing the property on Bristol Street, according to project manager B. Robin Eglin, president of OmniVest.
Additionally, because the proposed garage entails more than 25,000 square feet of new gross floor area, the project had to be reviewed by the city through the Civic Design Review process.
The proposal includes a total of 301 off-street parking spaces, including the existing 74, once the project is complete.
The open parking garage would be constructed on the footprint of the current parking lot, and the existing bus lane within the parking lot would remain the same.
Off-street parking would not be affected during construction because it will be completed over the course of two summers.
According to Megan Walsh, chief business officer at FTCES, “Upon approval of the project, the plan would be to begin installation of pilings and supports in the summer of 2020, after which the existing lot would be readied for regular use for the 2020-2021 academic year, and then construction of the structure would occur during the summer of 2021.”
The project is expected to cost approximately $6 million, Walsh said.
Walsh listened to residents’ concerns regarding parents of students at the school, but admitted the difficulty in overseeing issues off school grounds.
“All we can do is ask for parents to be mindful,” she said. “ I can’t control what parents will do once they get behind the wheel of a car.”
Many residents expressed the concern parents wouldn’t use the parking garage, but were assured it would be a school policy that, “We’re going to require parents coming to the school to pick up their child or dropping them off, to enter the garage, to get them off the road,” Eglin said.
With 955 enrolled students, on average, about 170 parents drop off and pick up their children from the school on a daily basis and about half the student population uses buses, according to Boggs.
“We want to get all those overflow of cars off the street and onto the property,” she said. “The school is very willing to put in place policies that will help. This project is the beginning of a sincere effort to work to make this better.”
A Gillingham Street resident shared a story about a car “jumping the curb and driving the sidewalk all the way down the street” with students walking on the same sidewalk.
Another resident talked about her private driveway being blocked by parents dropping students off and being “cursed out in front of her child” by said parents when asking them to move their vehicles.
Another resident boisterously responded, “If you want to bring that big of a parking lot, there’s something else coming.”
Eglin confirmed a contract for the parcel adjacent to the school on Bath Street had fallen through after initial environmental investigations.
The plan had been to turn that parcel into a surface parking lot, according to Eglin.
One Hedley Street resident suggested reducing the height of the garage by building one of the levels below the ground, to which Boggs responded it was “not financially feasible.”
BCAA board member Yvonne Stephens suggested letters about the meeting and residents’ concerns be sent home to parents of FTCES students
State Rep. Joe Hohenstein recommended drafting a Community Benefits Agreement between residents and FTCES so that the community could weigh in on policies regarding the garage and how those regulations would be enforced.
“I don’t think we should count on the school alone to enforce this. I think the best route is a CBA,” he said. “There’s a big project going up in Mayfair, and they’re doing a CBA for that school in order to make sure the neighborhood is taken care of at the same time. I think the solution is let’s find out what the policy should be together and then use the CBA as an enforcement mechanism.”
Hohenstein expressed his willingness to help oversee developing a CBA.
“The school is doing this particularly because they see the same problems you do,” he added. “This is designed in part to deal with some of those problems. We have to make sure the cure isn’t worse than the disease. We have to make sure this actually does resolve all the problems, and you have the input.”
Several residents left the meeting prior to voting taking place on the project.
The final vote was 12 against and three in favor of allowing a variance for height for the parking garage at FTCES.
The Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing for the FTCES parking garage is scheduled for Feb. 12, at 2 p.m.