QUINCY — The Quincy Plan Commission gave mixed reviews Tuesday about the Quincy School District's proposed location for a new elementary school on the northeast side of town.
In the end, the commission voted 6-3 in support of allowing the district to build a new K-5 school at 30th and Locust. The issue now goes to the Quincy City Council for consideration Monday. The council will have final say on whether the district should be issued the special permit needed to proceed.
The Plan Commission struggled with the matter during a meeting that lasted nearly two hours. The main issue for commissioners involved safety concerns because numerous large trucks use Locust Street and other nearby routes in that industrialized part of Quincy.
Glenn Bemis, a former Quincy School Board member, spoke out against using the 20-acre site, which was donated to the district by ADM Alliance Nutrition for one of five new elementary schools to be built in an $89 million building campaign.
Bemis also spoke at Tuesday morning's meeting of the School Board's Building and Grounds Committee. At both meetings, he showed an aerial photograph depicting how the proposed new school would be ringed by businesses, including the Quincy Development Center, Titan International, Premium Water Inc., Gates Air and Manchester Tank. There also are several trucking companies, including Sisbro, where Bemis works as general manager.
Bemis told the Plan Commission that heavy truck traffic in that neighborhood posed “a huge problem on the safety side.”
Also voicing concerns was Lou Bond, manager of the Quincy Development Center, which has several entrances to its property off Locust Street. Bond said traffic congestion at busy times of the day could be a problem.
However, the city's planning staff recommended approval of the permit, contingent on the School District adding sidewalks to meet city code.
In addition, School District representatives rose to the defense of the proposed site, saying a number of steps would be taken to mitigate traffic concerns and keep children as safe as possible.
For example, the district would add a third lane of traffic on Locust to provide for turning, and it would build a sidewalk on the north side of Locust — even though not many children would be walking to the school, said Joel Murphy, the district's business manager.
“There really wouldn't be any walkers,” Murphy told the Plan Commission, saying most students would take a bus or be driven to the school.
Murphy acknowledged that the 30th and Locust location “is not an ideal site for a school,” considering it's in an industrial area. However, he added, “we feel confident that it's a good site.”
Murphy said school officials think it's important to put one of the new elementary schools in the northeast quadrant of Quincy and it was difficult to find an available site of sufficient size and at an affordable cost — until ADM came along with its property donation.
“It's kind of tough to pass up 20 acres for free,” he said. “We're happy with the site.”
Three Plan Commission members voted against issuing the district a permit: Greg Davis, Jeff Bergman and Jeff Steinkamp. Steinkamp said traffic safety was his main concern. Davis said he was concerned that the Plan Commission could be setting a precedent by putting its stamp of approval on “a less than ideal site” for a local school.
Commissioner Jim Citro said he, too, was concerned about big trucks traveling through a school zone, but he also said he understands the challenges the district is facing in trying to find a large enough school site at an affordable price. He said the district would likely be raising traffic concerns no matter where it put a new school.
During Tuesday's School Board Building Committee meeting, Bemis said the truck traffic in that part of town is heavier than many people realize.
“I don't want to try to scare anybody, but the safety is a real big factor,” he said.
The committee's chairman, Richard McNay, who also is in the trucking business, said it's important to let the permit process play out.
“We've spent a lot of time and resources and money researching this site,” McNay said. “The architects have worked very hard to lay out the building on this property, and so until we know for sure that we're going to be given approval or denied, we're not going to spend the resources and money to work on an alternate site.
“We've looked to see if there are alternative sites that are affordable. At this time, this is the most affordable site for the district.”
Bemis, who chose not to seek re-election to the School Board in 2011, said the ADM site “is a very nice gift,” but he suggested it could be sold and the proceeds used as seed money for another site.
School Board member Mike Troup said ADM has tried to sell the property for several years without success, possibly because of a creek and flood plain on the north side of the parcel, and it meets the School District's needs. The district still must find two other sites for elementary schools.
“I don't think there's a better site in this quadrant that we've looked at or had opportunities for reasonable prices,” Troup said. “We know under the engineering review that we can build within the budget that we have earmarked for this. Nobody's showed me a better site.”
Committee member John Heidbreder sided with Bemis.
“He's exactly right,” Heidbreder said. “It's a lousy place to have 5-year-olds to 10-year-olds.”
The district's plans for the site include adding a turn lane along Locust on the south side of the school, having separate bus and parent drop-off areas, including plenty of parking to avoid traffic backing up on Locust, and having students bused or dropped off at the school.
Murphy told the Building Committee that planning trends nationwide are putting schools into industrial areas to build family-friendly environments for employees.
“If they can have a school that's right across the street or near where they're working, they can go over on their lunch hour when there's a problem,” Murphy said. “We would have an opportunity here, particularly because of the size of the site, we could add a day care, add an early childhood center that would be able to serve the employees of people working here. There's a win-win.”