Finding a “Place” for School

Posted on 22 January 2010

web_Project for Public Spaces Walk_1370

The sky was threatening rain on Tuesday afternoon, but a diverse crew of community members, from Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Tom Fabiano and 725 GREEN chairwoman Gigi Morris to school superintendent Dr. John Gratto, weren’t concerned with the weather. As the group toured the district’s campus with Fred Kent of the nonprofit organization Project for Public Spaces, they were engrossed in a conversation about the layout of the schools and how to address some concerns over inadequate parking for staff and public.

Project for Public Spaces is a non-profit organization that helps municipalities across the globe create vibrant communal spaces, and Kent walked around the schools with an eye toward the potential for improvements.

“This all started because of the perceived school parking problem and the bond issue to redo and expand the school’s parking lots,” said Morris in a later interview explaining why Kent was invited to the community.

A recent $6.7 million bond vote, which would have allocated around $1 million for a plan to repair and upgrade three of the district’s parking lots, failed in December. The walk around the schools in the afternoon prefaced a presentation Kent gave to a larger audience later that evening in which he focused not on specific recommendations for the district, but rather elaborated on the idea of place-making.

Of his talk, Morris said, “I think it wasn’t what we expected but it may be what we need.”

Kent said the community should shift conversation away from merely parking to the notion of creating place or an identity for a village, or in this case school. Kent dubbed this endeavor as place-making. He has worked with over 2,500 communities and has been hired by numerous municipal organizations to aid in creating user-friendly public spaces.

“When you design around cars you get more cars. When you design your community around people, you get more people,” remarked Kent.

Through a series of slides displaying images of the Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris to the Balboa Park in San Diego, Kent believes welcoming communities are created through connecting locations, by building sidewalks, sprucing up bridges with plantings, and installing fountains and benches. Melding sustainability with place-making, added Kent, is essential to this equation.

As Save Sag Harbor’s president Mia Grosjean pointed out, Kent was brought in to help the community think “outside of the box,” not to give specific recommendations. Kent noted, though, that he felt the intersection where Jermain Avenue meets Atlantic Avenue was too large and diminished the opportunity to walk from one school to the other. He mentioned that by creating parking on both sides of the street, it might have a traffic calming effect because people would be more alert when navigating this intersection.

School board member Mary Anne Miller noted that the Long Range Planning Committee, which crafted the items in the bond, was attempting to repair deteriorating lots, a problem especially evident at the Jermain Avenue space. Kent agreed that maintenance of existing lots is necessary, while others on the tour suggested creating incentives to carpooling or parking off site.

The village has long said neighbors of the school complain about cars parked in front of their properties. Fabiano added that it is often difficult for emergency vehicles to get in and out of the school’s parking lots. Kent wondered if the road could be narrowed a bit. During the tour, others noted that a majority of the school community lives in Noyac and Mount Misery where the roads don’t encourage walking and biking.

Parent Bridget Fleming broadened the scope of the traffic discussion by bringing up Noyac Road, and a seven-mile narrow stretch where there were two fatalities last year.

At the close of his talk, Kent said creating place in Sag Harbor needed to be done by the community itself. He believes the community members should be the leaders and suggested the school set-up an online audit where students can evaluate their campus.

“I think the district is going to have to embrace these concepts and support them. We need to reach out and try to work with the village and other people to get beyond this and find some sort of solution,” said Miller.

She noted the board had already signed off on installing bike racks and mentioned that the primary impetus of the parking project was to maximize the repairs and upgrading of the existing lots. Village trustee Tiffany Scarlato similarly said the village is open to new ideas. She added that the voice of second homeowners and the resort community should be taken into consideration.

For Morris, Kent’s speech was inspiring and she was already conjuring up ideas for creating a gateway between the elementary school and Pierson. She noted the community could hold a place-making workshop. Grosjean focused on a homework assignment Kent had given to the community of looking at a map of the school and finding five places they love, five places they think are dysfunctional and five places of opportunity. School Board President Walter Wilcoxen confirmed the school will put another bond to a vote in the spring. Of Kent’s speech, Morris said he gave the community some “food for thought.”

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One Response to “Finding a “Place” for School”

  1. another parent says:

    I think that the idea of a student audit is awesome as is the idea of an on-line chat for adults.

    I am one of those “driver parents” and it is not credible given what I have seen to allocate so much money as the bond does for parking where the solution(s) are worse than the problems. Actually, the problems have recently been created by the school insisting on a police presence and re-directing traffic.

    This was so patently an attempt to “nudge” people to support the “answer” called The Bond as it pertains to the parking, that its offensive. How stupid does the Board think we are?

    I think everyone should think long and hard at whether the “problems” are real problems that can only be “solved” through the kind of expenditures and dislocation of the look and feel of the beautiful campus and the beautiful neighborhood surrounding it. i’ll bet that we can all do better.

    The Board of Education needs to truly engage the community not just pretend to Too many of us are taking a much closer look at what elected officials are doing.

    I plan to vote against the Bond and rally many others to do so because we just can’t go on impacting our community and its finances through decrees issued by the Board who “knows better” even as they evaluate the Supervisor’s public relations and student relations by their own internal opinion.

    I think it is incredibly admirable that this perspective has been presented to the community. There is a respect in this visitor’s words and suggestions that I hope the Superindentent and the Board will embrace as a way of thinking as it would save so much that is so important, and, no doubt, save money as well.

    I think the Board should look into restoration of respect and consultation with the teachers, students, parents and community. Having an online opportunity for discussion that is “open” as it is happening is more important right now than a parking lot. Once you do the parking lot thing, it doesn’t get “undone”.

    Without the kind of thinking suggested in this post, voting yes on the Bond is just going to continue this shoving things down the communities throat with all the divisiveness and short- sightedness that has become the hall mark of contemporary government. Its right here in Sag Harbor with the parking around the school.

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