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Needham Elementary parking lot redesign spells doom for school’s tennis courts

Bond project addressing safety leaves athletes worried about lack of facilities
Children run past the tennis courts Tuesday at Needham Elementary School. Durango School District 9-R has plans to remove the tennis courts to make more room for parents picking up their children and emergency vehicle access. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

A planned redesign of the Needham Elementary School parking lot and parent pick-up/drop-off area is scheduled to finally take form this summer. But to accommodate necessary changes, the tennis courts used by school and community tennis teams must go.

The Durango School District 9-R board heard updates related to the district’s 4A Bond projects at its Jan. 25 meeting. Projects include numerous construction and repair plans across schools in the district.

The Needham redesign serves a couple of purposes related to safety.

Needham Elementary School was first constructed in 1951 and has undergone several updates. The tennis courts will be removed to improve the student drop-off and pickup location. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Cars, buses, cyclists and walkers all pile up around the front of the school during early morning drop-off and afternoon pickup times, said Kathy Morris, the school district’s safety and security director.

The parking lot is small and traffic to the school has increased over time, so the district’s long-range planning committee began looking for opportunities to improve traffic circulation several years ago. The plan for the redesign is to include a clear path for thru-traffic so vehicles aren’t backing up or turning around to leave the parking lot.

“I’m the risk manager, I’m the safety and security director, so my lens looks a little different than most,” Morris said. “So I’m really hypersensitive to really watching out for making sure our kids get on campus safely and are able to get back off campus safely during those times of pickup and drop-off.”

Devon Merriman, a member of the Citizens Bond Oversight Committee, said at the last board meeting that extra space is needed in the parent pickup/drop-off zone to increase the circulation of traffic. Allowing for more flow of traffic would reduce the need for students to cross the street to be picked up.

Expanding the parking lot would allow vehicles better access to the pickup/drop-off traffic loop. It would also provide more access to EMS vehicles. Merriman said with the current design, the fire department has to pull into the parking lot and then back up toward the building.

He said because the redesign is already planned to improve the flow of traffic by adding a stretch of asphalt for thru-traffic, the redesign opens a convenient window to build a full EMS route along the edge of the parking lot.

The street and intersection outside Needham Elementary School is often heavily congested with pedestrians, cyclists, cars and buses. Needham plans to redesign its parking lot this summer. But the tennis courts must be removed to make room for the lot expansion, to the dismay of tennis enthusiasts. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Loss of courts comes as a blow to tennis community

Removal of the elementary school’s tennis courts is bad news for local tennis players, said Daniella Phillis, president of the Durango Community Tennis Association.

“The big impact is even though people might not see it or believe it, there is a growing tennis scene in Durango,” she said. “Especially a junior scene.”

This is Phillis’ sixth year as assistant coach for Durango High School’s girls team. She said the high school team has grown from 25 players when she started coaching to 35 or 40 players in the last half of her tenure.

She is concerned demand for tennis courts will rise even higher in the absence of courts at Needham. She said there are more than 200 active members on the DCTA’s mailing list, but only a few public tennis courts. Many tennis players also choose to play at similar times, for example early in the morning, to beat the heat in the summer.

The Durango Community Tennis Association has more than 200 active members on its mailing list, said Daniella Phillis, president of DCTA. Phillis said a big concern for tennis and pickleball players is that fewer courts in town will ramp up demand for play time at other available courts. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

DHS’s and Needham’s tennis courts are open only limited times because of neighborhood noise complaints about pickleball matches held on those courts, Phillis said. The gates to the school courts remain locked except for the hours between school getting out and nightfall.

Other tennis courts in Durango include two hard courts in the 1200 block of East Third Avenue, two hard courts in the SkyRidge subdivision and four lighted courts on the Fort Lewis College campus.

Phillis said aside from limited tennis courts in town, the Needham courts are a large part of the neighborhood tennis community.

“A lot of them (DCTA members) learned to play there or walk their bike there with their kids and play as a family, because they are definitely one of the more neighborhood-friendly courts to get to,” she said.

Needham courts have got to go

Durango School District Superintendent Karen Cheser said she understands community concerns about losing the tennis courts at Needham. But the school district has concerns for the safety of students who are walking through the parent pickup/drop-off zone at the same time cars are driving through.

An areal view of Needham Elementary School as shown in the Durango School District 9-R facilities master plan. (Courtesy of Durango School District 9-R)
The Durango School District 9-R facilities master plan includes this mock-up of what the planned parking lot improvement for the pickup and drop-off area near the tennis courts could look like at Needham Elementary School. However, the tennis court left intact in this mock-up won’t survive the redesign scheduled for this summer. (Courtesy of Durango School District 9-R)

The 2020 Facilities Master Plan identifies the parking lot redesign at Needham as one of four immediately needed improvements, with the others being secure entry vestibules with bullet-resistant glass, replacement parking lot asphalt and base, and a larger cafeteria space for food preparation.

Morris said Needham was built a long time ago (originally constructed in 1951, according to the master plan, followed by additions and remodels in 1961, 1995 and 2004). The school district must bring the Needham school building and other buildings up to safety code.

“Our No. 1 objective here is education,” she said. “We’re not a prison, we aren’t governed by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). But there is an expectation that we have a very safe and secure environment.”

Cheser said there is no way to expand the parking lot without removing the tennis courts. The community has been invited to use the tennis courts, but there have also been issues – the Needham tennis courts have had locks cut.

“We also realize that there are not enough facilities in our community for tennis and pickleball,” she said. “That’s definitely been an issue. That seems like a desire for the community to add more of those.”

Cheser said the question about adding more tennis courts is whether that should be a project for the school district, the city of Durango or La Plata County.

Phillis said demand is high for tennis and pickleball courts. But she doesn’t see new courts coming online anytime soon, and any notion of that happening is likely wishful thinking.

“If there was a plan in place to replace them, an active plan with land drawn out and agreed upon, I think I would believe it,” she said.

cburney@durangoherald.com

In an earlier version of this story gave an incorrect last name for Kathy Morris.

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