St. Elmo’s Fire

Twice a day, every day, during the schoolyear, it happens like clockwork. Parents pick up or drop off their kids and rush off, leaving the neighborhood in the rearview mirror. Similarly, outside Episcopal School of Jacksonville’s middle school, cars stack up on narrow streets, creating a gridlock that keeps residents in their homes or waiting behind dozens of cars.

Since its founding 52 years ago, Episcopal has grown into a thriving private institution educating 800 to 900 middle and high school students annually. As enrollment has grown, so has its impact on the neighborhood along its flank, a small community of roughly 40 households on Live Oak Lane, St. Elmo Drive and Theo Street, which runs between the two.

Since the school added the middle school entrance on St. Elmo, residents have grumbled about congestion, told tales of speeding and recklessness—hurried parents and newly licensed teenagers—driving through lawns, nearly clipping a gardener among the flowers, and worried that the school was taking over their neighborhood. Meanwhile, Episcopal continued expanding, adding buildings and other facilities to its campus and acquiring first one, then another, and another house along St. Elmo Drive, until a section of the street began to lose its residential character.

Already aggravated with the twice-daily crawl plus traffic created by sports and other events, some of Episcopal’s neighbors were outraged when they caught wind of its planned $17 million improvement project, particularly the location of the guardhouse, which they said initially was to be built on a public road.

Thus, the conflict that had long simmered boiled over.

In recent weeks, mediation between neighbors and the school has satisfied at least one of the residents’ concerns: The guardhouse will be on Munnerlyn Drive on school property, the main entrance to the campus.

In an op-ed, The Reverend Adam Greene, head of Episcopal, says that the guardhouse will not create extra traffic, and that it has been positioned to add “an additional layer of security” without impacting the ingress and egress of people taking St. Elmo, who will also have unfettered access on Live Oak Lane.

But some are still not pleased with the proposed plan to reroute a section of St. Elmo to accommodate the entrance. Then there’s the matter of the congestion and the traffic study residents say is necessary to fully understand the impact on their neighborhood, but which the city has not required.

Attorney Gary Eckstine, who has lived in the neighborhood for the better part of four decades, says the school is “violently opposed” to performing a traffic study. On Monday, a school spokesperson referred my inquiries about the study to the city.

Eckstine and others, such as neighbor Don DuPree—who wrote an op-ed urging the traffic study, calling the plan an “overreach” and privacy violation—characterize the conflict as that of a wealthy private school running roughshod over its middle-class neighbors. Greene counters in his op-ed that they work in collaboration with neighbors and the city to make needed improvements.

To see for myself, last week, I parked at Eckstine’s house next to the campus during the afternoon pickup hour. Sure enough, there were cars backing up along the street, though fewer than I’d seen in photos. (A school representative told me that they have recently begun directing parents into an adjacent parking lot to reduce the traffic.)

As I walked around the neighborhood off Atlantic Boulevard, one of those pocket-sized communities of modest, very well kept homes, there were many signs of neighbors’ frustration. I saw a small section of road collapsed from, neighbors say, excessive traffic; poles in one yard to keep people from cutting the corner and driving through the grass (when I got there, two of the four had been knocked over; when I drove through the next morning, a third was down), and scores of matching red-and-white signs saying, “Drive like your kids live here.” With no sidewalk, passing cars kept forcing me onto lush lawns; it happened so many times, I asked Eckstine if anyone had been hit (he wasn’t entirely certain but thought one had been clipped years ago). Then again, a woman unloading her car told me that she didn’t really mind the traffic.

A golf cart zoomed up to me near the main entrance. It was the school’s head of security seeing what I was doing. After a short, pleasant conversation, he zoomed away. It was a small reminder of risks brought into harsh focus by the tragic 2012 on-campus shooting death of the head of the school by a teacher she’d fired, which some believe is part of the driving force behind the project.

Episcopal’s neighbors are sensitive to these concerns; they just want their neighborhood back. Eckstine also said he doesn’t blame parents for the problems. “They’re nice people, but they’re not the ones making this decision.”

The matter comes before the Planning Commission next month.


In op-eds, both sides explain their perspective of the situation: Neighbor Don DuPree, who opposes the project; and The Reverend Adam Greene, head of the school, who is for it.