Turlock Christian School can now move forward with plans to convert the old MedicAlert offices into an elementary school campus, following the Turlock Planning Commission's approval of a Minor Discretionary Permit for the project on Thursday.
The Planning Commission approved the project despite protests from local residents, whose main concerns were the increased traffic the school would bring to the area around Colorado Avenue and Tuolumne Road.
"I realize the MedicAlert building will need to have an occupant, however, allowing a school means twice a day for a one hour period the entire area will be inundated with auto as well as pedestrian traffic. Also the concern for the safety of the students placing them in an already congested area is questionable...I am a supporter of Turlock Christian School, having sent five of my own children through it, but just because I support them does not mean I think it is appropriate to place a school in this location. I believe this building is more appropriate to be used as doctor or dental offices which would produce much less traffic," wrote Michael Way resident Larry Reed in a letter opposing the project.
Other residents spoke at Thursday's Planning Commission meeting, saying that the traffic on Colorado Avenue is currently a huge problem and adding a school to the area would make things worse.
City Engineer Mike Pitcock examined the possible traffic issues that could arise from the conversion of the MedicAlert office to a school campus and found that with two mitigation efforts, the "traffic generation will be noticeable but should not rise to the level of concern."
"The parking situation at this site is better than any public school in town, and this school has substantially less population than other schools in town," said Pitcock on Thursday.
The mitigation efforts include adding a sign at each driveway, directing student drop off to the rear parking lot and restricting all left turn movements into and out of the front parking lot, which will be used for visitor parking only.
Turlock Christian plans to have all student drop off and pick up in the campus' rear parking lot, which is accessed by two private driveways. The rear parking lot is 450 feet away from the Tuolumne Road entrance and 700 feet away from the Colorado Avenue entrance, allowing for 100 vehicles to stack up onsite before encroaching into the public right away.
The chances of car stacking at all is minimal, according to Turlock Christian Superintendent Karen Winter, as the school has a very specific drop off and pick up plan in place that eliminates confusion. The supervised drop off and pick up routine, along with the school's far fewer students — Turlock Christian Elementary has approximately 200 students whereas other Turlock elementary sites have between 700 and 900 students —means a much different traffic pattern at the private school site than seen at other schools around town.
Turlock Christian parent Kate Ryan wrote a letter of support for the elementary school project and said that TC's drop off/pick up system was an "unknown benefit" for her family. Her three children had attended Julien, Dennis Earl and Walnut elementary schools in Turlock before they transferred to Turlock Christian.
"TCS runs their drop off/pick up system...with laminated name plates for the cars and a walkie talkie system, all under the watchful eye of the teachers and administrators, every student's whereabouts are accounted for by the teachers and staff. There is no mass release of kids by teachers hoping they get where they need to go. Even the few children that walk or ride bikes are assisted to cross the street safely by staff. When you come through the pickup line your child is placed safely in your car and off you go with no stress or frustration," wrote Ryan.
Along with having student drop off and pickup in the rear parking lot, the school moved its start time from 8:15 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. to avoid the peak time when students are being transported to Dutcher School, located farther south on Colorado Avenue.
Local resident and Turlock Christian alumna Michelle York was impressed with the school's traffic plan.
"As a resident, I did have many of the same concerns as the people that sent emails and wrote letters, but seeing what the school plans to do to mitigate these concerns is helpful," said York.
After hearing from local residents, Turlock Christian administrators and the project's chief architect, the Planning Commission voted 4-0 to approve the project (with Commissioners Nick Hackler, Eric Gonsalves and Geoff Powers absent).
"Most of my concerns have been addressed, but I can't get past the traffic...maybe my opinion is swayed because I live across from Dutcher," said Commission Chair Victor Pedroza.
All the commissioners expressed their approval of the repurposing of the 35,156 square foot office complex that was vacated when MedicAlert moved its operations to a leased space in Modesto earlier this year.
"There's no perfect project, but overall some of the solutions in this project are the best I've seen," said Commissioner Jeanine Bean.
The $4 million renovation of the building will include a multitude of new classrooms, a computer and media lab, multipurpose room, library and robotics and technology centers for the kindergarten through sixth grade elementary school — the first standalone campus for Turlock Christian. The project is expected to be completed in December.