Neighbors miffed over Helman gym

The gymnasium being constructed at Helman Elementary School has left neighbors asking, "Why?"

The new 28-foot building, which neighbors have compared to a prison compound or a cruise ship, blocks the mountain views of the surrounding homes and residents say it doesn't fit with the neighborhood or vision of Ashland.

"I am extremely disappointed because in my view Ashland is a place that prides itself in being beautiful and maintaining a good community spirit," said Patricia Potter, who lives across the field from the gym.

Schools located far from Siskiyou Boulevard deserve as much attention as recent projects on the main streets such as the public library and fire station received, she said.

In this case, neighbors who live just beyond the 200-foot notification radius said they feel they were purposely left in the dark so the project would be approved faster. Susan Vaughn, who also lives across the field, was not notified, but the boundary where the city is required to notify neighbors of possible construction fell just at her fence line.

"There is no ordinance for view protection, but what is legal and what is right are two different things," she said.

Vaughn, whose granddaughter attends Helman, said she is not opposed to improving school facilities, but she doesn't feel the size is appropriate for an elementary school.

"The children &

I can't speak for all of them &

they say, 'It's ugly, we're scared of it,'" she said.

Neighbors who were notified said they felt duped into believing the building would be much smaller than it actually is.

"No one fully understood the impact this was going to have on the neighborhood," said Anthony Lewis, who lives across the street from the gym. "I thought it was going to be half this tall."

Sharon Bryson raised six children who attended Ashland schools and used to enjoy watching children play soccer in the mornings from her kitchen windows. She said she was told the gym would be only 20 feet tall, not 28, and with the new gym erect, her view is filled by a solid concrete wall.

"I have not been able to come up with a word to describe the invasiveness of this," she said. "It feels like it's bigger than life, and it's violating."

City, schools respond

The Planning Commission approved building plans in December 2007, after determining they met all city requirements, including the 35-foot height limit in single-family residential zones, where Helman is located.

"The role of the city is to look at the criteria," said Adam Hanks, permit center manager with the city. "If it's things like 'It blocks my view,' that's not a criteria. That's not something that we can require the applicant to modify purely to help another property's view, because it's hugely subjective," he said.

An ordinance on view protection could potentially stop the construction of even a single-family home if a neighbor argued it was blocking his view, he said.

In determining which neighbors to notify about the project, the city relied on a computer program to determine the 200-foot radius and did not make site visits, he said. The school received basic and not detailed site review because it did not fall within the three detailed site review zones in the city, Hanks said.

School district officials said they chose the only spot on the Helman grounds that could fit a gym without tearing down the playground or classrooms, and they kept the height as low as possible for a functional space.

"We're trying to be very efficient with taxpayer dollars, and so we're not going to tear out the playground," said School Board Chair Mat Marr. "We really couldn't go any lower without being able to play basketball and volleyball. It's not about reaching for the sky; it's about making it a usable space for the kids."

Architects designed the gym to have a lower elevation by cutting seven feet into the hillside, according to blueprints, and more landscaping, painting and screening to break up the texture of the building are planned around the building once construction is finished.

The district planned originally to paint a mural of the dragon mascot on the side of the gym, but they are willing to work with neighbors who dislike that idea in choosing a final color scheme and design, Marr said. A meeting between neighborhood residents and school officials is planned for 9 a.m. Friday in room 13 at Helman.

"We're absolutely willing to consider any proposals," he said. "We want to be good neighbors."

Residents have suggested a professional mural painted to look just like the mountains behind the building, a long row of mature evergreen trees or softening the shape of the stark rectangular building. Whatever the decision, they want to be consulted every step of the way.

"I'd love to have them take it down and start over with a vision of beauty and community spirit," Potter said. "Realizing that probably won't happen, I would at least like landscaping. At the very least, I'd like a lot of trees to block it out so I don't have to see it for 20 years."

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or .

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