Riverside village trustees voted unanimously on April 20 to concur with the Planning and Zoning Commission and grant Riverside Elementary School District 96 five zoning variations needed to redevelop the rear parking and play areas behind Central Elementary School and L.G. Hauser Junior High School.

While the Planning and Zoning Commission still needs to sign off on a final site plan, the vote essentially capped a planning effort in the works since 2019 and kept the construction project on target to break ground in spring 2024 and wrap up prior to the start of the 2024-25 school year.

“We’re really pleased with the outcome,” said District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye, who along with architect Ryan Kelly of DLA Architects represented the school district at the village board’s April 20 meeting.

It was the village board’s second discussion of the project. The first, on April 6, had left the school district scrambling to address a number of concerns, from sharing security camera data in the future, to lighting, to the exact location of a fence along the Akenside Road frontage to the landscaping along that frontage, where lilac bushes dating from 1950 will be removed.

That April 6 meeting had left the impression that village trustees were not keen on approving the site plan and a miscalculation at that meeting by Kelly of estimated field area lost if fences were moved farther back from the sidewalk inflamed some school parents, who emailed elected officials their displeasure.

Kelly had initially estimated the school district would lose about 4,000 square feet of field space if the proposed fence enclosing the field were moved in five feet. After further investigation, Kelly confirmed the actual area lost would have been 865 square feet.

Village President Joseph Ballerine addressed that matter prior to the village board’s discussion and eventual approval of the school district’s plan on April 20, calling for the minutes of a PTO meeting to be changed to reflect the real information related to the field and defending the village board’s pushback on various elements of the plan as originally presented to them.

“The village board has the responsibility and the duty to do the due diligence, which includes soliciting and considering the impact of these requests on neighbors and evaluate how that impact can be mitigated if the zoning relief is approved,” Ballerine said.

In the end, the school district received the zoning relief it sought for the location of fencing around the proposed 40,000-square-foot athletic field, but the village also negotiated conditions it felt were important to mitigate impact on neighboring residential properties.

In a letter to the village from Kelly in advance of the April 20 meeting, he stated that the district was in the process of researching security camera systems for that use and that the school district was open to considering an intergovernmental agreement related to sharing data and also the inclusion of a “blue-light enabled camera” that could serve as an added deterrent for trouble.

That letter also addressed concerns about lighting at the rear of the campus, stating that the school district would remove and replace the lighting presently mounted to the rear walls on the north and east sides of Central and Hauser facing residential properties with LED shielded wall packs.

Trustees were also pleased with changes to the proposed landscaping along the Akenside Road frontage of the school property, where on April 6 DLA’s landscape architect described the proposed new screening as including “a solid curtain of evergreen” using arbor vitae in addition to lilac and viburnum plantings.

Those arbor vitae caused some alarm and in the final approved plan those were eliminated in favor of yew. Other Riverside-approved native species such as chokeberry, turtlehead, grasses and hydrangeas are also part of the final landscape plan.

The new plan now separates the parking lot and play areas with a 10-foot-wide sidewalk that allows safe passage for pedestrians and kids on bikes. Sidewalks are also planned to run perpendicular from Akenside Road along the far edges of the parking lot and playing field to allow other safe access points for pedestrians.