By Tina Richards

The Orange Planning Commission rejected a charter school’s application to install temporary trailers in a church parking lot on Lincoln Boulevard, following an emotionally charged public hearing, July 17. 

It was, for Unity Middle College High School, a make or break decision.  The school, operating under the auspices of the Orange County Department of Education, wanted to open its doors with 100 freshmen on Aug. 23.  Previous plans for another location fell through, leaving Unity with little time to find another site, get city approvals and permits, and erect the needed structures.

Unity found a willing partner in Main Place Christian Fellowship at 1310 E. Lincoln Avenue.  It applied for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to set up temporary modular classrooms in the church parking lot.  The school would set up three trailers (two for classrooms, one for restrooms) the first year, and add two more classroom structures the second year.  It planned to vacate the site after two years, remove the temporary buildings and return the grounds to their original state.

Right idea, wrong place
Due to the quick turnaround, city staff expedited Unity’s permit application and recommended approval from the planning commission.

The commissioners appeared sympathetic to the school’s plight, but its permit application came with issues. It had been denied by the city’s Design Review Committee (DRC) because it was incompatible with what already existed at that location.  The DRC specifically objected to the color palette and the stark view the trailers would impose on the office building next door.

And the parking lot does not belong to the church alone.  Under a covenant signed by the church and the neighboring medical office complex, both have equal rights to use the entire parking lot.  The covenant restricts any access barriers to any portion of the lot and gives both parties the right to use 72 parking slots on the other’s “half.”

Unity’s trailers would remove 40 parking spaces from the equation.  While city staff assured the commission that even without those spaces, there was plenty of parking for all, it was not clear that Main Place Fellowship could legally introduce a third party into the covenant agreement. 

Not enough to go around
Ingress/egress was also problematic. Parents dropping off students would enter via Canal Street, making a left turn into the parking lot just shy of the signal at Canal and Lincoln.  They would exit by making a right turn onto Lincoln. 

During the public hearing, a dozen Canal Street residents urged the commission to deny the CUP, reporting that their small street was already congested by motorists using it instead of Tustin Avenue.  They noted that drivers making a left turn from Canal into the parking lot would create a roadblock, that the traffic signal at Lincoln and Canal was already a bottleneck during peak hours, and the influx of cars from the school would only make it worse.  

Representatives from the medical offices objected to the reduced parking opportunities, increased traffic on Lincoln, and noted that they did not want to look out their windows and see trailers. 

Spotlight on students
Unity Middle College High School Executive Director Erin Craig gave the commission a passionate account of the school’s teaching format, noting that it targeted underserved youth and prepared them for college.  Unity has an agreement with Santiago Community College, enabling its high school students to attend college classes.  Craig reported on the success of similar charter schools that she had started, with once-disadvantaged students graduating with good scores and enrolling in college.  “This offers a benefit to Orange,” she said.  “It’s the only high school like it in the district.  And while we target underserved youth, we’re open to everyone.”

Craig assured the commission that school staff would oversee drop-off and pickup patterns to alleviate problems. “Since we’re opening with a small number of students, we’ll have the opportunity to see what works and fix what doesn’t.”

Charter school staff, parents and supporters provided personal accounts of the benefits Unity delivered to students by giving them opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.  The small teacher-to-student ratio, individual attention, tailored curriculum, academic rigor and college classes “changed kid’s lives.” One parent was given to tears as she recounted the impact Unity had on her child.

Devoted, but disfunctional
“I’m grateful for your enthusiasm,” Commissioner Daniel Correa told school supporters, “but my concern is traffic.  I’m not satisfied that it’s been addressed completely.  I’m not insensitive, but that’s not the issue.  The issue is, is it functional at that location.  The answer is, it is not.”

Doug Willits agreed.  “I support charter schools,” he said, “but this is not a good fit for the neighborhood.”

“I can’t support this due to traffic circulation,” Dave Simpson concurred.  “I know that intersection very well.  I’m also feeling rushed.  I can’t check the box that says this is compatible with neighborhood.”

“We don’t like to say 'no,'” Adrienne Gladson granted. “We like charter schools.  We’re not saying we don’t want you in Orange, but this is not the right location.”

“It’s the queuing and traffic,” Commission Chair Ernie Glasgow concluded.

The vote was 5 - 0 to deny the permit. Unity can appeal to the city council; however, it would likely not be put on the calendar until well beyond the school’s August start date.

Proposed charter school location deemed inappropriate; planning commission says “no”