Preschool Proposed for Historic House Draws Passionate Support, Opposition

A genteel battle of ideas played out Tuesday morning as Lakeland’s planning board pondered the best use for a large and historic home in the South Lake Morton neighborhood.

Both sides were represented by articulate speakers who spoke passionately about whether the Planning and Zoning Board should allow a preschool at the Deen House, a 1912-era, 6,736-square-foot mansion at the corner of Frank Lloyd Wright Way and Success Avenue.

It could be several months before Thomas and Madison Brawner get a final decision on the conditional use permit needed to open the Alta Schoolhouse, a preschool for up to 70 children ages 2 to 4, at 417 E. Frank Lloyd Wright Way.

The Deen House, viewed from the corner of Frank Lloyd Wright Way and Success Avenue

At Tuesday’s meeting, board members heard from 25 people — slightly more opposing than favoring the project. At their next meeting on Nov. 19, they will get a recommendation from their staff and are scheduled to vote on whether to approve the application.

But there are still other steps. If the planning board approves it, the issue next goes to the City Commission for two meetings in December, the second of them a public hearing and a final vote.

And a week from Thursday, the Lakeland Historic Preservation Board is scheduled to determine whether plans for the exterior of the building — including a double fire escape on the west side — meet preservation guidelines.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the City Commission conference room was packed with supporters — many of them young parents wearing light blue Alta Schoolhouse T-shirts — and opponents — many of them long-time homeowners in the politically active South Lake Morton district. The Alta schoolhouse issue was discussed for roughly two hours at a meeting lasting nearly four hours.

Audience members
The Planning & Zoning Board and, at right, two city planning staffers
Thomas and Madison Brawner at Tuesday’s meeting

The Brawners and their supporters spoke of the need for a quality preschool in a residential setting in Central Lakeland, where many preschools have waitings lists of a year or two. They say they will remain stewards of the building’s architecture, and noted the house has been used as a residence for only 30 of its 107 years. Supporters also said the house has been on the market for two years without any interest from residential buyers.

Opponents focused on maintaining the historic character of the building and increased traffic and noise.

City planners made it clear their main concerns are traffic, parking and safety. The historic issues will be sorted out next week by the Historic Preservation Board, they noted.

Teresa Maio, the city’s housing and planning manager, said a lot of the planning staff’s concerns would be alleviated if the preschool would be able to use the adjoining parking lot.

Thomas Brawner said has had discussions with St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, which owns the parking lot, but have not reached an agreement: “They haven’t said that is something that they would never be open to, but they have said that as of currently, we need to come back to them.”

Use of 18 or 19 spaces in the church parking lot would be “ideal,” he said, but for now Plan B involves use of up to 10 angled parking spaces on the west side of the school to be used for student dropoff and pickup. In addition, the site plan calls for five on-street spots on Frank Lloyd Wright Way.

The site plan from Staughn Trout Architects. McDonald Street, seen to the north, is a previous name for Frank Lloyd Wright Way.

Under this plan, parents bringing children to school would enter an alley between Success Avenue and South Boulevard from Charles Street and head north toward 10 angled parking spots on the west side of the school.

Planner Maio noted that the alley is narrow, it’s used for solid waste pickup two days a week, and cars backing up into the alley or waiting to park pose a safety hazard. “Utilizing this alley and the spaces adjacent to the alley is not appropriate for circulation of traffic,” she said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Our video shows the car route up the alley:

Thomas Brawner noted neighbors’ concerns about traffic and parking but said preschool traffic is staggered because children are dropped off at different times; it’s unlike primary schools that have strict bell schedules, resulting in long car lines.

He displayed a chart showing that dropoffs will take place between 7 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., and pickups will occur from 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.

In addition, parents have a three-day option, and he anticipates the school will be at half-capacity on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

* Ledger coverage: Proposed preschool draws mixed reviews
* Document: Planning & Zoning Application

Traffic will further be reduced because many families will bring more than one child to school, he said, and several project supporters told the planning board they live nearby and plan to walk their children to school.

“We know traffic is a major concern to the local residents and we’re doing everything in our power to alleviate it,” he said. “This includes not having any parent parking on Success.”

Brawner’s slide presentation showed numerous examples of alley parking in the Lake Morton area and nearby portions of Dixieland. But Maio noted in her remarks that those are “commercially zoned properties or they are multi-family properties that don’t have the same operational impacts that a preschool has.”

(LkldNow requested a copy of the slide presentation to include with this article but has not received it yet.)

Click either photo to see a larger version.

Several opponents raised the specter of increased traffic, especially as an upcoming test of the Florida Avenue “road diet” diverts traffic to residential streets in the Lake Morton and Dixieland neighborhoods.

“It’s going to be a traffic nightmare — or maybe I should say daymare,” said Thomas Milligan, 91, who lives across Success Avenue from the Deen House. “He probably has a good plan and I wish him well, but I wish him somewhere else besides this historic district … Would you spare us the invasion of privacy, spare us the intrusion of traffic, spare us disruption of serenity, spare us the erosion of standards, spare us the waiver of regulations.”

If opponent Milligan sounded like a sermonizing preacher, the Alta Schoolhouse project was supported at the meeting by at least four staff members from Grace City Church, including Andrew Gard, co-lead pastor, and Emily Lim, who identified herself as children’s pastor.

Gard spoke of the importance of bringing new life to heritage spaces, as Grace City did with the former Westminster Presbyterian Church and the former Lakeside Baptist Church.

Lim addressed concerns expressed by opponents that there would be playground equipment on the lawn facing Frank Lloyd Wright Way; she said the outdoor equipment the school plans to use is removable and will be moved indoors at the end of the school day.

Julie Townsend, president of the Lake Morton Neighborhood Association, said the organization’s recently updated neighborhood plans call for rezoning the Deen House property from a multi-family category to single family.

She said she supports the Brawners as Lake Morton neighborhood residents and their business, but can’t support it at the proposed location. Her letter:

Video of Tuesday’s meeting:

Planning & Zoning Board Meeting 2019.10.15 from City of Lakeland on Vimeo.

Lakeland skylineSupport Independent Community News. We rely on people like you to invest in the community by supporting this non-profit service. Donate