Central School Grapples With Closing of Village Square Access

by Judy Silberstein

(January 10, 2008) With school again in session, the Central School community is responding to the closure over the winter break of a gate from the Village Square parking lot to a path leading to the back of the school. Owners of the lot, Centro Properties, cited safety and liability issues as the reason to block a route used for years by parents and children coming from the Boston Post Road side of the school.

Village Square lot
A new section of fence restricts access from the Village Square parking lot to a path used by parents and students to reach the back of Central School. Photo by Shelly Antinelli.

Central’s administration, staff and parent volunteers have implemented new procedures to accommodate increased traffic at the “front door” – the access road from Palmer Avenue. At dismissal time, drivers are assigned numbers that correspond to the children they are picking up. Meanwhile teachers, aides and parent volunteers use walky-talkies to get students released from the school LGI as the cars appear. During the first week, the process required a 15-minute early dismissal, but now that the children, parents and staff are used to it, the school is letting out at its regular time, said Joan Rosen, spokesperson for the district. “I was over there – school was out at 3:00, and by 3:15 all children had been picked up,” she reported on Wednesday, January 9.

At the same time, a new group, dubbed "Parents for Safety", is continuing to lobby for the opening of the Village Square access. “We hope to work with the school board, the town, and the superintendent of schools to reopen the gate and come up with long-term safety standards that will protect our children and keep them safe,” said Amy Siskind Bayer, a parent of Central School students and a spokesperson for the group. She said parents with experience in the insurance industry are tackling the liability issue. Others are offering legal and business expertise “to help come up with viable solutions.”

Friction over parents parking in business lots near local schools is not a new issue. Mamaroneck Schools Superintendent Dr. Paul Fried said he has a letter about the situation from 1981. Recently, parents attending Mamaroneck High School events have had cars ticketed or towed at the now-closed Tung Hoy restaurant, Starbucks and Village Square lots along the Boston Post Road.

According to Jean Meyerowitz, Central PTA co-president, there were legitimate concerns about safety at Village Square, which the PTA had been working on since the beginning of the year. “The safety issues were not insurmountable,” she said, “what was hard was the lack of notice, leaving us little time to put in alternative procedures for pickup.”

However, another Central parent, Andraya Dolbee, said she was not surprised. “We all got warnings about the gate being closed. You weren’t supposed to use it as a drive-up/drop off lane,” she said. Parents had been asked to park, get out and walk their children to and from school. “Apparently, enough people did not heed the warning,” said Ms. Dolbee. Now she is trying to walk more often from home, which she said “is not bucolic” but also “is not that hard.” She recognizes that it is harder for families coming from farther away and also for pedestrian shoppers who used the now-closed gate as a safer access to the Village Square stores.

Palmer Traffic & Other Problems

“Carol Houseknecht [Central’s principal] has been doing an outstanding job of managing a difficult and unforeseen situation,” said Ms. Siskind Bayer. However, Parents for Safety does not view the new dismissal process as a long-term solution. In a January 9 press release, the group wrote, “traffic on Palmer has already been an issue due to proximity to other schools (Hommocks, Murray and MHS).”

The group estimates more than 50% of the children have been arriving to school from the Boston Post Road side, although there are no hard data on this. Some parents and guardians are continuing to park at Village Square, but are accessing the Central School path by walking down a steep vehicle ramp with no sidewalk. Ms. Siskind Bayer said a few have been seen parking illegally at the Veterans of Foreign Wars David Potts Jr. Post 1156 property and walking down the even steeper driveway there. Others are leaving their cars at the Ferndale (Stop and Shop) lot and walking around or waiting (unsafely and illegally) along the Boston Post Road to pick up children.

District Response

On Wednesday, Dr. Fried expressed satisfaction with the new dismissal process but voiced concern about ongoing safety issues. He complemented the principal, Ms. Houseknecht, and the assistant principal, Edgar McIntosh, “who with the help of terrific staff members and wonderful parent volunteers have created what we believe is a very safe, effective and efficient process.”

Dr. Fried said he has been in “constant communication” with Town Supervisor Valerie O’Keeffe. The Mamaroneck Town police “have been supporting the traffic flow onto Palmer for us and our youth detective, Bobbie Reynolds, has been at the dismissal to look at it and give us suggestions – they are certainly involved.” He said some parents were parking and picking up their children in the front of the school as they have done in the past. “It’s all very safe – kids are not walking between cars.”

In addition, Dr. Fried has been communicating with the owners of the Village Square shopping center, who have also received emails from members of Parents for Safety urging a reconsideration of the gate closing. Dr. Fried discussed the possibility of having the district assume some of the liability for the parking lot, but “we have our own insurers and attorneys to deal with” and the owners “would still have the liability – they cannot legally pass along their liability,” he said. In addition, the owners “have a responsibility to their tenants. All the spaces are taken up by parents during dismissal, leaving no room for customers,” said Dr. Fried.

“I have to say the people at the Centro group have been nothing but kind, reasonable and sympathetic,” said Dr. Fried. One official told him, “If this was happening to us, my wife would be all over us to fix it and calling us every day, but I have to do what it is prudent for the company.”

Future Solutions?

While reopening the gate seems like a remote option, Dr. Fried said he is “happy to support Parents for Safety in whatever way I can.” The district is looking at Central School’s own property “to see if there are ways to configure that to increase parking spaces and have a better and smoother traffic flow,” he said. He has also put in a call to Larchmont Acres, the adjacent apartment complex, “to see if there is any way to do something about a pickup point there. If we can put our own traffic attendants there to be sure that tenants aren’t inconvenienced, perhaps that would be a possibility.”

He cautioned parents against illegally parking at Larchmont Acres, the VFW or elsewhere. The district has already heard from an angry apartment tenant blocked by a Central parent and from VFW members who want to avoid calling in tow trucks to remove parents’ cars from their lot, which gets heavy use from the Larchmont Senior Center and from large construction vehicles that are leasing space. “This is really not a place parents should go,” said Dr. Fried.

“Our bottom line, of course, is safety of kids,” said the superintendent. “We think we’ve created a very safe process.”