Traffic at Third and Louisiana streets has been pretty sleepy for the past several years, thanks to vacant buildings.
But if things go as planned for the new charter e-STEM school, which will occupy the Gazette Building on the northeast corner, the corner should be busier than it's ever been.
E-STEM — which actually will be three schools covering grades 1-12 — will have a maximum of 856 students and some 60 to 65 teaching and other personnel, spokesman Joe Mittiga said. Arrival times will be staggered between 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. and departures between 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.
To accommodate traffic, the city is considering making Louisiana, which is now one-way south of Second Street, two-way from Second to Interstate 630. There would be costs involved, to change signals and intersection improvements.
The school had asked that Louisiana be opened to two-way traffic from Second to Fourth. Parents will drop off children at entrances on Louisiana, Third and in the alley off Third Street on the east side of the building.
“Based on what we see [in the school's traffic plan], we don't see any operational problems,” city traffic division manager Bill Henry said. Henry said he's still getting data, but that his office had looked at the school's request from a “worst case” scenario, which would put 450 cars on Louisiana and on Third every morning and afternoon. (About 100 cars an hour use the intersection today, he said.) Henry said street lights are timed in such a way that 10 to 15 cars will be able to pull in front of either entrance every 70 seconds, for a total he estimated of 500 cars an hour.
The new traffic plan would make all left turns from Third onto Louisiana illegal to prevent gridlock, Henry said.
Traffic could be worse in the afternoon, Henry said, because instead of dropping off children, parents usually go early, park and wait. But he anticipates that the number of cars will be fewer than the “worst case,” because some cars will transport multiple children and students will be encouraged to ride Central Arkansas Transit to get to school.
Nor will everyone headed to e-STEM be dropped off, Henry noted. Teachers, administrators and some high school students will have their own cars. So what about parking needs? “We have plenty of parking in downtown,” Henry said. Mittiga said the school is now looking for permanent parking for staff and teachers.
At least one neighbor of the school is upset about the parking situation. Philip Miron, managing partner of Hyden, Miron and Foster law firm at 200 Louisiana St., has met with school and city officials to express his concerns. “It doesn't seem like anyone cares about our parking situation,” he said. “The city needs to give us some concessions.” The firm employs 25 to 30 people at any one time, he said, and can't accommodate all of them in its own spaces behind its building, and clients need a place to park as well.
Miron said he wasn't opposed to the charter school, but he thought it ought to have taken the needs of its neighbors into account. He also said the firm will challenge the plans, if necessary. “If we have any due process here we're going to take advantage of it.”
Gus Vratsinas employs 70 to 75 people at his construction company, VCC, at 216 Louisiana, he said. “We think it will cause added congestion around here. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out.” But he was resigned to the traffic plan. “I've lived with change all my life. … What are you going to do?”
Vratsinas would like to see the school landscape its property in such a way that it both complements the Capital Hotel, which just underwent a costly major renovation, and buffers sound from the playground the school will create on the north side of the building in what is a parking lot now. “We live by a higher standard now,” he said.
The school's Urban Use zoning prevents outdoor workspaces (such as car dealerships), so e-STEM will have to get a variance for its playground. Mittiga said the school will plant nine trees around the playground property and install secure, but attractive, fencing. A hearing on the variance is set for March 31 before the Board of Adjustment. Monte Moore, zoning administrator for the city, said the board could place certain conditions on the use of the playground, such as restrictions on operating times.