Darien’s Planning & Zoning Commission’s Feb. 25 meeting resembled more of a courtroom setting than an informal discussion.

There were frequent interruptions, raised voices, angry comments, and even some laughing by commission members during a one-hour long Ox Ridge Elementary School presentation.

Throughout the entire presentation, Amy Samuelson, an architect from the SLAM Collaborative, was repeatedly grilled by some commission members.

The SLAM collaborative represents the structural engineers, landscape architects and interior designers who are designing the new Ox Ridge Elementary School.

The purpose of the presentation was to get feedback from the commission in regard to the new school, which will be located at 395 Mansfield Ave., at the same site as the current Ox Ridge Elementary School.

Status

The architects are a little more than halfway through the design development phase, which is the second of three documentation phases for the design team.

The current school would remain up and running while the other building is being constructed. A significant part of the construction would be able to take place without impacting the existing school, according to Samuelson.

Two sections of the existing building would be abated and demolished over the summer, to make room for the assembly wing of the new building, Samuelson said.

Like the existing building, the new building would have two levels that settle into the terrain, she added. There would be one main level and a second floor underneath.

The building would be about 105,000 square feet, over the two stories. It would have a 35-foot-tall gymnasium.

The building is allowed to go up to 40 feet because it’s in a Municipal Use (MU) overlay zone, Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman Stephen Olvany told The Darien Times.

Parking

One topic that caused a strong reaction with commission members is the concern about the heavy traffic that currently exists during pick-up and drop-off times.

Samuelson said there is a traffic study being conducted but it is not ready at this time.

At the current school, there are 87 parking spaces, plus four handicapped spaces, for a total of 91 spaces, Samuelson said.

Planning & Zoning Commission member Cara Gately said people park at the school in areas that are not marked on the map Samuelson was showing.

She asked Samuelson if she has been at the school during pick-up and drop-off times and observed the number of cars that are parked in undesignated areas.

“Have you gone to the school and counted?” was a question Gately asked Samuelson several times.

Samuelson said she doesn’t think she needs to count the cars “because the new parking lot is going to accommodate 120 cars.”

Twenty-nine new parking spaces would be added: 60 standard spaces in the lower parking lot and 55 standard spaces in the upper lot.

In addition, there would be three handicapped spaces in the upper lot, and there are two handicapped spaces in the lower lot.

However, she added there would be “plenty of spaces” in the new parking lot where one can parallel park alongside the driveway, “in a similar manner to how they do today.”

She estimated there are an additional 40 spaces available in parallel parking areas — to be used during special events such as open houses and music performances.

Samuelson said the architects can accommodate more parking if it’s required by the traffic commission. However, she said, “we want to maintain as much open space as we can for the students.”

Population, ELP students

The elementary school population in the new school is remaining unchanged. However, the ELP population will grow because the ELP students are going to be consolidated to Ox Ridge school.

Darien’s ELP is an integrated preschool where children with special needs and children with typically developing skills learn from each other in a nurturing and supportive environment.

Currently, there are two ELP classrooms, and in the future there will be nine. There are 16 kids in each ELP class. This amounts to a population increase at Ox Ridge of 112.

ELP have more than one teacher in a classroom. Also, there is one director and one school psychologist.

“This is a very tight site and we’re trying to balance the amount of paved lot with the amount of play space available to students,” Samuelson said.

There would be three playgrounds required as part of the project. ELP has its own K-2 and 3-5. Those are the required age groups for playing, according to Samuelson.

In addition, there are plans for “a field that is the equivalent of a U-10 soccer field, as far as size goes,” Samuelson said. “We’re not marking the field for soccer. It’s an open play space.”

There would also space for three play gyms.

Gately said she’s concerned about the children at Ox Ridge who have special needs, such as those that are in wheelchairs, in regard to how they will get to the play fields.

She said she wants to be sure the ramp will be ADA accessible for those students to be able to fully access them, and to be with their schoolmates.

In response, Samuelson said there will be a ramp from the school, down to the field area.

In a discussion about the levels in the school, when Samuelson said the children will spend their day in a “fully day-lit basement,” Gately loudly voiced her objection.

“I’m sorry, that’s awful,” she said.

‘Wasting time’

At one point during Samuelson’s presentation, commission member James Rand said most of the conversation had nothing to do with Planning & Zoning issues.

“I’m sorry, but we’ve spent almost an hour and we’re talking about a lot of things that are well intended and thought out comments but they got nothing to do with planning and zoning,” Rand said. “I’m sorry Cara, but we’re wasting time talking about it.”

Gately and Rand went back and forth on this issue for a bit.

Next steps

Darien’s Planning & Zoning Director Jeremy Ginsberg will have another meeting with the Ox Ridge Building Committee to get some additional questions about the project answered, Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman Stephen Olvany told The Darien Times.

The architects are submitting their formal application to the Planning & Zoning Commission in a few weeks, and expect to have a public hearing at the end of April. The traffic study should be complete by that time.

Watch the full Planning & Zoning Commission meeting on Darien TV79.

sfox@darientimes.com