SAVAGE — A new Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools elementary school slated to be built in south Savage likely won’t open as planned in 2020 after the City Council delayed approval of its site plans, a district official said this week.
The council during a special meeting Tuesday unanimously decided to hold off the vote until the district provides a redesigned site plan or evidence from a traffic study that dispels the city’s concerns that Hamilton Ridge Elementary School off of 157th Street will bring too much traffic to its surroundings.
“I think you’ve thought about your building only. You’ve not thought about the families that are coming to the school,” Council Member Matt Johnson told district Assistant Superintendent Jeff Holmberg. “You’re trying to talk your way through it, and I think you need to show us options.”
After the council vote, Holmberg said it would delay the school’s opening possibly to 2021.
District officials for years have looked into ways to help with crowded elementary classrooms and bus routes, including with the new school. They’ve also spent money on transportation and redesigning attendance boundaries to address the issue.
“PLSAS is moving forward with conducting a traffic study, per the request of the City of Savage. We are happy to provide this additional information and we remain hopeful the construction project will be back on track,” Holmberg said in an email Thursday.
The council needs to vote on the plans by May 18 or extend the application’s deadline at its May 6 meeting, City Administrator Brad Larson said. He said in an email Wednesday the city hopes the results of the traffic study will be available before then.
The council the previous week had asked both the district and the developer of the new Big Sky Estates subdivision next to the school site to change their street and access plans to prevent future traffic problems.
City officials said last week that school traffic piling up in neighborhoods is an issue at several schools around the city and they wanted to get it right this time.
The request could have jeopardized the school’s construction because the land sale to the school district for the building was contingent on the housing development’s approval.
Tuesday’s meeting changed the situation by moving the housing development forward while putting the traffic-fixing burden squarely on the district.
Several council members predicted the Big Sky Estates’s roadway design would change here and there as the housing build-out continues for roughly the next decade, and future roadways could eventually take care of traffic problems on the development’s side of things.
“We’ll deal with the school separately,” Johnson said.
The decision came after Holmberg gave a presentation defending the school site design. It calls for one public entrance and exit point to the south of the site, which opens into a parking lot off of 157th Street. Buses would enter and exit separately on a bus loop constructed to the north off of 156th Street.
Holmberg said the district spent around 18 months designing the site and believes it’s safest for bus and other traffic to be separate.
District staff estimate around 77 percent of the school’s roughly 700 students will ride the bus or walk. Around 60 cars will be able to line up in the parking lot, more than at other schools in the district, according to Holmberg’s presentation.
He also argued most cars won’t need to travel northward because the elementary school is situated in the northern part of the district and will draw families from the south.
The council wasn’t convinced, partly because the district’s analysis lacked a traffic study conducted by an engineer.
Member Bob Coughlen said it doesn’t matter where students are coming from when there is only one entrance to the south of the site. He criticized the district for not addressing the city’s concerns.
Coughlen also brought a design plan he drew himself and asked Holmberg to explain why a public access point on both the north and south sides wasn’t possible.
Holmberg said it would create a thoroughfare and compromise student safety if north and south access points connected 156th Street and 157th Street through the school’s parking lot.
“It’s not a road going through there — it’s a parking lot,” Coughlen replied. “You’re saying all of a sudden this is going to turn into a major thoroughfare?”
“That is our estimation,” Holmberg said.
Johnson suggested combining the delivery truck and bus turnarounds on one side of the building to free up the other side for a road connecting the north and south.
The Prior Lake-Savage School Board voted last year to buy 17 acres for roughly $1 million from Prior Lake Aggregates to construct Hamilton Ridge Elementary School. The new elementary school project was included in the $109.3 million referendum passed by district voters in 2017.
Council Member Christine Kelly was the lone dissent in the vote to approve the next Big Sky Estates development phase, saying there’s no guarantee its own traffic issues will get fixed later. The development needs more access on its northern side, for example, she said.
“I am very concerned that the entire development is going to be going through those two streets for a very long time because we have no idea how long the rest of that development is going to take to get developed,” Kelly said.
For those who buy the new homes, she added, the council vote essentially said, “Yep, we knew you were going to be miserable, yep, we knew there would be cars driving in front of your house every single day, but we don’t care because the developer didn’t think that was important to address, so we just let it go.”