Turlock planners split on giving street to Sacred Heart Catholic School

A request to let Sacred Heart Catholic School absorb the street that divides its campus in half moves forward to the Turlock City Council with a neutral recommendation from staff and planning commissioners.

The Turlock Planning Commission on Thursday split 3-3 on its advisory vote on how the request to abandon one block of Cooper Avenue, between Rose and Oak streets, meshed with the city’s general plan.

Commissioners Victor Pedroza, Jeanine Bean and Chair Soraya Fregosi voted against the proposal, saying there were not enough specifics on church plans for the space and acknowledging neighbors’ concerns about traffic.

Commissioners Elvis Dias, Eric Gonsalves and Nick Hackler voted for the proposal, saying it did not violate general plan guidelines the panel had been asked to review.

Those guidelines include keeping the grid pattern and general traffic flow of older neighborhoods, preserving neighborhood character and public safety. While Turlock’s city staff took no position on the issue, city engineer Mike Pitcock said it would not cause any significant traffic issues or emergency response delays.

The proposed closure would create one long block out of two smaller ones. The street already closes from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. every school day under a permit issued in 2001. But the school must allow pedestrian traffic through because the gates are not fitted with push-open panic latches.

“We have issues with homeless that are daily,” said Linda Murphy-Lopes, who starts Monday as Sacred Heart’s principal. Turlock’s public elementary schools have distinct boundaries that enclose campuses, said Murphy-Lopes, who was a principal and teacher at several of them.

“The difference with Sacred Heart is it is two separate blocks,” she said. “The kids play in the road, literally.”

Parents said the openness worries them, noting that issues with strangers entering the campus have caused three lockdowns this year. The school came before the city twice before, in 1983 and 2001, seeking to make its divided campus whole.

“It’s always been for the common reason, which is the safety of the children,” said Jack Gosnell. “We all know that we’re living in changed times. There’s a lot of crazy things going on.”

But closing Cooper, the widest street within the neighborhood, would push traffic onto narrower streets, said longtime resident Mike Ducey. He said the smaller streets – dimly lit, with no sidewalks or center lines – are ill-equipped to handle the load.

“Sacred Heart seems to forget they’re guests in this neighborhood,” he said. “They don’t live in this neighborhood.”

Ducey was the only person to speak against the proposal, though at least two other families sent letters protesting the change.

The 4-block-by-4-block, tree-lined neighborhood is a mix of small houses and community uses, including two schools, two churches, the town library, a senior center and school district buildings. Turlock fire station No. 1 sits three blocks away, and the central downtown area is a short walk to the west.

Sacred Heart Catholic Church took up residence in the area in 1910, serving a parish of 6,000 families. About 100 preschoolers and 200 elementary students are at the church campus on school days, with about 2,000 children receiving religious instruction in the evenings.

Parking for large church events and Friday football games in the adjacent Turlock High stadium strains the neighborhood, where not every home has a garage.

Being able to close the street would allow the church to improve traffic flow and create a more parklike play space that would beautify the area, industrial designer Rusty Baez told commissioners. Plans still on the drawing board call for paving the alley as part of a drop-off lane that would carve out the preschool area and create more parking, he said.

But those are just ideas at this point, said commissioner Victor Pedroza, who argued he needed more specifics before he could support the plan.

Commission Chairman Fregosi said the move would set a bad precedent, considering that, only one block east, Turlock High School sprawls on either side of heavily trafficked Berkeley Avenue. That road is also closed during school days, an arrangement she called a reasonable balance between school and community needs.

“If this street (Cooper) were to be abandoned, then the scale would tip 100 percent to the school and to the sacrifice of the immediate neighborhood,” Fregosi said.

The issue moves next to the Turlock City Council, which will rule on the request. The matter is tentatively set for the Feb. 9 meeting.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin