Teachers pleading for a redesigned Preston Park Elementary School helped sway Roanoke planning commissioners Monday to approve the school district’s rezoning request over city staff objections.
For months, the city and schools had been at odds over the design of a new, $34-million building to replace the overcrowded school that opened in the 1950s.
The main sticking point was how far back from the street the new building would sit. City planners said Roanoke’s master plan calls for a more urban feel: a new school close to the street, integrated with the neighborhood, that promotes bicycling, walking and deemphasizes parking lots and bus and car lanes in the front of the school.
School officials maintained that a building set further back on the 13-acre property is best for safety — to buy time in the event of a school shooter threat and when kids run away from school and toward traffic.
“We know children, and we know what children need,” Superintendent Verletta White told commissioners. “There’s no intention here to be combative or to have some type of fight.”
After an emotional, three-hour hearing, the panel voted unanimously, with one commissioner absent, to recommend approval of the district’s plans. Those will go before City Council on Monday.
About two dozen people wearing “Preston Park Elementary United” T-shirts sat in the audience; several identified themselves as teachers when they spoke to the commission.
Before teachers, parents and a student spoke, however, planning commissioners appeared ready to side with city staff. At a commissioner meeting Friday, members were skeptical of the district’s plans, with chair Sarah Glenn commenting on the setback, “I really just don’t buy the argument that this is safer.”
And during Monday’s presentation from district administrators and architects, commissioners shook their heads, raised their eyebrows and chastised school officials for not working more closely with city planning staff.
“It’s unusual that someone comes and makes a presentation and it’s not in conformity with what the staff has suggested that they do,” commissioner Frank Martin said.
Commissioner Pamela Smith added, “I’m kind of curious as to the opposition to working with staff. Like, how did you guys not come together to work on this?”
After the vote, Chris Perkins, the school district’s chief operating officer, rejected the characterization that school and city officials did not work together.
“We had some non-negotiables,” Perkins told reporters. “Quite frankly, the staff rested on the fact that they wanted the building moved. And why continue to meet after the fourth or fifth time? … We believe that is the most optimal location.”
Eric Fisher, the principal of Preston Park Elementary, told planning commissioners that a few more feet from the street could mean the difference between life and death.
“What if we are closer to a road when someone starts shooting? What if someone wants to do a drive-by shooting?” he said. “All we are asking for is to give us a chance to protect ourselves and our children.”
Fisher also suggested parents see objections to the district’s plans as a form of racism.
“I am repeatedly being questioned as to why our proposed location is being opposed,” he said. “My school is the most racially and linguistically diverse school, not only in the entire Roanoke Valley, but also in this region of Virginia. … [To parents], this feels like another form of inequity.”
Preston Park sits in one of Roanoke’s fastest-growing neighborhoods, according to Census data, and has a growing Hispanic community. With 520 students, the current school is over capacity, with some children having classes in a trailer.
The district’s plans entail a roughly 85,000-square-feet building that will accommodate 700 students and include two wings for classrooms, a cafeteria, gym and media center.
Classroom wings are angled to capitalize on natural light and are best positioned for future rooftop solar panels, officials have said.
The location of the new school, expected to open in the fall of 2026, will allow the existing school to operate during construction. School officials had warned that any derailing of its rezoning application could entail two years of students being bused to different schools or learning out of makeshift classrooms.
Michael Mauceri, an architect with RRMM Architects, said they had explored building closer to Preston Avenue. But he said the property’s topography would make that challenging and costly.
After city planners’ concerns, Mauceri said architects did revise an initial design by cutting the number of parking spaces in half, adding a civil promenade and making a sidewalk connection.
Katherine Gray, a land use and urban design planner for the city, said the schools’ designs still did not adhere to Roanoke’s comprehensive plan.
“There are still things to be addressed,” she said. “Staff cannot support the application in its current form.”
Gray said the district could still follow crime prevention principles while building the school closer to the street, which would allow for more “natural surveillance.”
“We are hearing that either we do what we have proposed or we’ll have to bus students,” Gray said. “There are other options to be considered.”
Gray also noted that surveys show over half the students at Preston Park Elementary School can be considered overweight or obese.
“There are things that can be built into the design, the natural design of our environment, that help people to be able to make lifestyle choices to make changes to deal with things like that,” she said.
In the current school year, 400 students rode the bus, 120 were driven in cars and only four walked, according to the district. For the upcoming school year, 18 students live within the “walking zone,” or a quarter-mile, of the elementary school, according to a district spokeswoman.
Todd Mendelowitz, who has taught at Preston Park for 27 years, said promoting walking and bicycling is an admirable goal in the city’s comprehensive plan. But he argued that was irrelevant to the school district’s design plans.
“The placement of the building won’t promote or deter pedestrian or bike traffic,” he said. “You can’t base this important decision on what you hope will happen when historically the opposite has occurred. … The hubris of the city planner is alarming.”
Planning Commissioner Karri Atwood decried “disrespectful” comments directed at city planning staff as well as the district’s perceived lack of cooperation.
“I am disappointed that Roanoke City Public Schools did not work better with our planning team,” Atwood said. “What swayed my mind today were the teachers. It is your concerns that swayed me to vote ‘yes.’ It is only because of your concerns and what you brought to the table today.”
Correction (8/17/23) — For the upcoming school year, 18 students live within a quarter mile of Preston Park Elementary School. An earlier version cited an incorrect figure and distance given by an engineer at a city meeting. The story has been corrected, and we regret the error.
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