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.”