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St. John's site problems would have been apparent if location was studied, architect says

If the St. John's Elementary School site had been studied, it probably never would have been considered as the location for a new Mehlville School District early childhood center, Don Hussman of Dickinson Hussman Architects recently told residents.

Alternatives to constructing a new early childhood center on the corner of Will Avenue and Lemay Ferry Road were presented to about 60 people last week during an informational meeting sponsored by the school district.

Mehlville administrators first informed Proposition P Oversight Committee members of their concerns about the Will Avenue site in late November. Site development costs, according to preliminary designs by Dickinson Hussman Architects, would total $470,000 of the early childhood center's $2.636 million budget— more than anticipated that would eat into programming, according to administrators. If constructed, a building on the St. John's site also would pose aesthetic and access concerns, according to Superintendent Tim Ricker.

Four options then were presented to the Oversight Committee: Construct the center at St. John's, on the Mehlville Senior High School campus, on the Beasley Elementary School campus or on land to be purchased by the district.

However, committee members requested that public input be sought before issuing a recommendation to the Board of Education on the matter.

Though concerns about the site were reported to the Oversight Committee Nov. 25, the Board of Education had voted in closed session Nov. 17 to begin negotiations with the Lechner Realty Group for a listing agreement for the St. John's site. During a closed session Dec. 15, the board voted to approve a 90-day exclusive listing contract with Lechner Realty for the St. John's site.

In formulating a facilities master plan in 2000, the school district's Citizens' Advisory Committee for Facilities recommended that St. John's Elementary School be razed and a new early childhood center be constructed on the Will Avenue site.

In August 2000, the Board of Education voted to accept the facilities master plan, which was placed on the Nov. 15, 2000, ballot as the Proposition P districtwide building improvement program. Mehlville voters approved a 49-cent tax-rate increase to fund Proposition P, then estimated to cost nearly $68.4 million. The Board of Education this fall approved a revised budget totaling more than $86.7 million for the building program.

During a presentation at the Feb. 11 informational meeting, Hussman of Dickinson Hussman Architects, the district's architectural firm for Proposition P, explained the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative, including keeping the early childhood center at the St. John's site.

A person's line of site entering the campus off of Will Avenue, if St. John's was razed, would be at the top of the building, he explained, also noting that the rear of the building would face the entrance. He and his partner, Dwight Dickinson, said the aesthetics of the building would cause many concerns if the district continued to pursue the St. John's site, but one advantage to using the property was that it was the site approved by voters when they supported Proposition P.

Architects realized in August and September, Hussman told the Call, that there was a problem with the site.

"I think there was just an assumption that it made logical sense because in relationship of where they are now people just kind of expected it not to move very far," Hussman said. "When you look at that site, you just don't have the idea that it is riddled with all of the problems. It's just not evident the way the existing school sits on there, you come in, it's reasonably level ... it's perceived as a one- or two-story building, but then as you go around you see it's huge."

Asked why the problems with the site were not discovered sooner, Hussman said, "Honestly, during the Prop P effort, there was not a lot of study in any of the improvements that were made. There were just preliminary studies done, but not the careful analysis that you need to go through."

During the CACF process, Dickinson Hussman billed the district for 2,428 hours even though it logged 3,230 hours, according to information compiled by Randy Charles, assistant superintendent for finance and the district's chief financial officer. The firm charged the district $35 per hour instead of its $65 per hour rate. Including consultant fees and reimbursable expenses, Dickinson Hussman was paid a total of $108,430 for study before the passage of Proposition P.

"It's a real fooling sight. It really is," Hussman said. "It's a big fooler and once you really analyze it ... the accessibility out onto Will in a safe manner becomes an issue."

Entering the site would be relatively easy, he said, but the hill near the entrance would pose severe exiting problems.

"I'm surprised there haven't been much greater problems over the years and even when the community college used it," Hussman said. "I would hate to negotiate that daily ... and it's just not in good condition for an early childhood (center)."

Aesthetics was the other concern.

But Oversight Committee Chairman Chuck Van Gronigen told the Call that coming in at or under budget is the factor that should drive which option is recommended to the board.

"I guess what I'm the most interested in (is that) all of these buildings would really work and all the sites would really work," Van Gronigen said. "At this stage I'd be more concerned with making sure that it fits within the budget constraints that we have. Whichever one will work to meet our budget needs best is probably what I want ... Our budget is more important than aesthetics."

Site development at the Mehlville High campus would cost the district $1.275 million, nearly half of the school's overall Proposition P budget for the project. Conflicts at this location include moving transportation, traffic congestion and limitations on future expansion, according to the presentation last week. Advantages of the site included that the district already owns the land and additional parking would be available.

Site development at Beasley Elementary would cost $365,000, which is $105,000 less than site development costs at St. John's.

Advantages include district land ownership, improved road access, its proximity to an elementary school and that the Beasley site is acceptable to current early childhood center administrators.

Disadvantages to the Beasley site, according to documents from the presentation, are that it, like Mehlville High, was not the original Proposition P site recommended by the CACF.

At least 46 people chose the Beasley campus as the best site for a new early childhood center, according to comment sheets submitted to administrators during last week's informational meeting, stating that Beasley was a "great" and "secluded" location, it was the "only logical answer" and it presented room for expansion.

Disadvantages to the site found in the comments show that Beasley is "farther south than voters thought when (they) passed Prop P," it is "not centrally located" and how would the location affect the "desirability of the program?" One person who filled out a comment sheet noted, "It sounds as if we don't have much of an option. Beasley is the best of the four."

One person submitted a comment sheet selecting the St. John's site as the best location. The comments indicated that advantages to the St. John's site would be its location, that it is "Mehlville-owned" and that the center would "have its own site" instead of sharing a campus, while disadvantages included that the land and structure would "not be level" and it doesn't "seem feasible to build on." Other comments included, "Why wasn't this looked into more closely before considered?" and "This should have been known prior to Prop P so adjustments could have been made."

Four people submitted Mehlville Senior High as their location preference. Advantages to the site, according to the comments, included that "Everyone is familiar with the location," "On site availability of high school students interested in work-study" and "low cost of development."

Noted disadvantages included "money to develop transportation site," "traffic from the high school" and "no parking." Other comments included "Traffic problems outweigh all benefits" and "Even though the cost is more, I feel the location is centrally located in the district, which would be an advantage."

No one indicated purchasing new land as a preference.

If the board did decide to construct the early childhood center on either the Beasley Elementary or Mehlville Senior High campuses, board President Cindy Christopher does not believe the district would need to hold onto the St. John's property.

"I think we'd have to do some demographic studies to see what our student population would be," Christopher told the Call during the informational meeting. "I don't foresee right now, with the numbers of kids we have in existing buildings, that we would need to build on another site ..."

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