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Laurel Historic District Commission rejects St. Vincent Pallotti High School development plans

It is back to the drawing board for St. Vincent Pallotti High School.

After obtaining approval from both the city of Laurel’s Planning and Zoning Commission and the city’s Board of Appeals, the school’s plans to build a 36,000-square-foot, multiuse athletic facility and to install a 24,000-square-foot turf field received a major setback when the city’s Historic District Commission tabled the proposals.

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“It did not go well,” said Jeffrey Palumbo, president and principal of Pallotti, about the meeting on March 15. “We’re deciding what we can do.”

Pallotti sought approval on two proposals at the Historic District meeting: first, to construct a multiuse athletic building and second, to demolish two vacant homes at 220 9th St. and 222-224 9th St.

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Neither proposal was approved.

The commission had concerns that the new addition did not “blend in” or show sensitivity to its environment in the Historic District. Colors, materials and landscaping were mentioned and Palumbo said he “tried to pick very neutral colors besides the blue, which is Pallotti blue.”

Historic District member Karen Lubienecki said more attention was needed to make it “not look like a Butler building,” a pre-engineered metal building.

“The landscaping and stuff is not really the issue here,” Lubienecki said. “It is the structure itself, which is massive, without any design elements whatsoever. The question is ... how to do some clever design work on the structure. This is a very important block. My concerns are really quite significant here.”

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Depending on costs, Palumbo said that he would be willing to work with the architect to make it blend in. He also noted that the current site is not exactly attractive, as the school’s sport teams practice on it.

“We try to keep it up, but it is just very hard since we don’t have practice fields. It doesn’t look good now,” Palumbo said. “I was thinking that this would be an improvement, but I certainly understand the significance of trying to make it blend in with the historical neighborhood.”

Other concerns expressed dealt with whether asphalt surfaces would be permeable, if a chain-link fence would be screened with shrubbery, lack of green space, a possible archaeological dig, the need for better designs for the LED lights and the need to make sure the lights not face into bedrooms across the street.

“Our concern is how does it appear? Is it consistent with enhancing the feeling this is a historic neighborhood?” said Michael Leszcz, a City Council member on the commission. “I am in favor of tabling this till next meeting. That would allow the applicant to come back to the city, sit down and work through these issues.”

Of the two buildings proposed for demolition, one had been a residence until December and the other, which lacks heat and air conditioning, had been used by the school’s football program, Palumbo informed the Historic Commission.

By removing the homes, the school would be able to move its exit from an alley near the intersection of Montgomery and 9th streets to a more central location across from Park Hill.

“The concern that we have is, a big part of approving the plan is the traffic flow and the parking,” Palumbo said, citing traffic buildup on both Montgomery and 9th streets. “A big part of this project was moving our exit down across from Park Hill so there is more room in our lot for drop-off, which allows us to relieve some of the traffic from St. Mary’s Place, Montgomery Avenue and Ninth Street. Unfortunately, with the houses there, we don’t have that access way.”

Lubienecki informed Palumbo that the two houses were considered “contributing structures” by the city of Laurel in a 2009 survey of its historic district.

“So there are some concerns about that, so we just don’t willy nilly tear down contributing structures,” Lubienecki said.

Leszcz said he was in favor of demolishing the buildings to allow a “safer entrance and egress from the property.” He did note that the buildings may have some historical significance, as one was where former Laurel Mayor Joe Robison was born. He suggested that Ann Bennett, executive director of the Laurel Historical Society, be allowed to go through the properties and that some bricks from Robison’s birthplace be given to his family (Robison died in December).

Historic district commission members questioned if the buildings could be moved. While Paul Gorman, the architect of the project, said the single-family dwelling could, it would not be possible to move the duplex, which members said was more important, as there were fewer examples of it in the city. Palumbo said by keeping the duplex, the access to the back exit would not be possible.

The historic district commission voted to table the project and asked Palumbo to come back with a new plan.

Robert Love, deputy director for Laurel’s Department of Economic and Community Development, reminded Palumbo that any changes to the plans would require the process to begin again, with approval needed by the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Board of Appeals.

“A lot of thought went into it, on how to get it all to fit on our little sliver of land,” Palumbo said a few days after the meeting. “We’ve been working nine years to get where we are.”

The new addition would benefit not only athletes, but the entire student body, as it would free up space in the current building so it could be used by the school’s new engineering and computer science programs, Palumbo said. Classes in a remote part of the building would then be able to move into the former location of the engineering/computer classes.

Future plans also include a small black box theater, or performance space, on the property that would allow the stage to be removed from the school’s cafeteria to create a better food service area.

Palumbo stressed that the additions were necessary to keep Pallotti, which is celebrating 100 years in the community this year, alive in a “very competitive” Catholic and private school market.

“Over the last four years, enrollment is down 20%,” Palumbo said. “This is a very serious concern. It is important for us, in terms of our future, to be able to have these kinds of things.”

While he declined to give a cost for the proposed plans, he said that the school did not want to grow its student population, but it did need to maintain it.

“We went over 500 [students] five years ago and realized we’re not better by going bigger,” Palumbo said. “We need to be at 460 to 480.”

Leszcz said it wasn’t unusual for plans to appear before a commission several times before approval, noting that St. Mary of the Mills Catholic Church’s Msgr. Keesler Parish Center went through several phases before it was approved.

Leszcz said the two buildings the school wants to remove aren’t worth saving but realizes other members saw differently.

“He’s got a path he has to follow,” Leszcz said of Palumbo. “We’ll see what happens.”

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