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Gulfport neighbors riled by Stetson's plans to block street, add crosswalk

GULFPORT — A plan by Stetson University College of Law to build an elevated crosswalk and cul-de-sac on the public street that divides the campus has drawn criticism from many of the school's neighbors.

Stetson administrators say the project would make the campus safer for students. But, if it goes ahead, vehicles would be allowed only part of the way up 61st Street from 15th Avenue S. Drivers could make deliveries and pick up and drop off passengers in a new roundabout near the law library, but would not be able to proceed to 13th Avenue S.

"Stetson is a valuable member of our community, but to be a good neighbor, it needs to consider the residents around it," said Cheryl Segal, 60, who has lived near the college for 11 years.

"If they are truly concerned about students' safety, they would not be considering a project that would cause more traffic on 15th Avenue S where most students park and then walk across the street."

Residents say they are worried about traffic being redirected to small neighborhood streets. Some don't want to be blocked off from their most efficient route through the neighborhood. Others say they are anxious about losing the only road that doesn't flood during heavy rains.

"To me, this is a big deal," said Susan Wagner, 63, who has lived near Stetson for more than 30 years. "As soon as a few of us from the neighborhood found out about the plan to close the street, we went door-to-door handing out fliers. Not one person out of 100 we talked to knew about it."

Gulfport City Council member Yolanda Roman, who represents Ward 3, which includes Stetson Law and the adjacent neighborhood, said the city has been encouraging Stetson to "reach out" to the community about the project. Following residents' complaints about the lack of public involvement, Roman organized a May 25 community forum with Stetson's cooperation.

"There's been no voting, no back door meetings," Roman told residents at the forum. "I swear to you, there's no collusion on my part."

Christopher Pietruszkiewicz, dean of Stetson Law, presented drawings of the proposed street changes and said they were driven by concerns for safety, a need to resolve drainage issues and a desire to create a pedestrian campus.

"You would be surprised at how many students cross the street while looking at their phones," he said.

David Cutler, the school's director of facilities, said the elevated crosswalk would allow students to cross the street without "treading through water."

Several residents acknowledged that the design enhanced the campus, but many said that did not justify closing a public street with no benefit to the community.

In an interview after the forum, resident Janese Davis said she initially thought the crosswalk sounded like a nice idea.

"My point of view changed after I went to the meeting because Stetson had no good facts or information," she said. "I was appalled and horrified that a road might be closed and such a huge project was planned so students could cross the street without getting their feet wet. … There's a simpler way to have a safe crosswalk."

Stella Vaughan Andersen, who has lived near the law school for 32 years, said Stetson is a good neighbor, "but it will be very, very difficult if they cause more traffic on my narrow road."

Dave Beeby, of Chaplains' Care Ministry, called the school's reasoning "ludicrous" and said he's never heard of students having difficulty crossing the road.

"It's hard to get in and out of my area — especially to Gulfport Boulevard — except on 61st Street," he said.

Gulfport Police Chief Robert Vincent later confirmed that a records search of the past five years revealed no traffic accidents involving pedestrians where 61st Street runs through Stetson's campus.

Also speaking at the May 25 forum were three recent Stetson Law graduates, two who are against the street closure and one in favor.

"I love the neighborhood and am planning to buy a house in the vicinity," said Alexis Petrosino, 24, who is staying on as a student for an advanced law certification. "The improvements at the campus would be pretty, but they take down a main thoroughfare that is the fastest route to the interstate."

Courtney Olivier, 25, who is studying for the bar exam, said "the real worry about safety is walking from the lot by the basketball courts (off 15th Avenue S)."

Both said they rely on 61st Street when roads in the neighborhood are flooded.

Diriki Geuka, who served as president of the Calvin A. Kuenzel Student Bar Association, spoke in favor of the project, saying he would welcome a safer way to cross the street. Of the 50 or so community members who attended the forum, he stood alone in voicing support for the plan.

But some have voiced their support in other ways.

"As a Stetson alum and neighborhood resident for 27 years, I was a bit embarrassed by the locals' reaction to Stetson's proposal to block the end of one street," wrote attorney Susan Helms in a June letter to the The Gabber newspaper. "How horrible could it be to have a nice quiet cul-de-sac? And Stetson is otherwise pretty stymied in being able to create a cohesive campus."

David Dutcher, a retired music director who lives near the campus, said he doesn't know why there's an uproar.

"I don't see why this is a big imposition to anyone because there are multiple ways to get in and out of here," he said. "I think it's fine if Stetson wants to take responsibility for a street."

City Manager James O'Reilly said the city is working with Stetson on an agreement to allow construction of the cul-de-sac and crosswalk and require the school to be responsible for the street's maintenance.

In a recent interview, Stetson professor Charles H. Rose III said the school's process so far "has created an inference that the school does not care about the neighborhood in which it resides. That's most frustrating to me because I know that not to be the case."

Reporting back to her fellow council members after the forum, Roman said Stetson had a hard time "communicating how the street closure and crosswalk would benefit the community."

Roman, Mayor Samuel Henderson and Council member Michael Fridovich have separately attended meetings with Stetson to learn about the project. Roman said she will schedule another community forum as soon as she is alerted that Stetson will submit a formal request to the council for the project to proceed.

Meanwhile, Pietruszkiewicz said Stetson is preparing a "coordinated response" to address concerns.

The school plans to mail a letter July 3 to its "Gulfport neighbors," add information to its website and provide a handout that can be picked up at its facilities office to address the proposed project, according to Brandi Palmer, Stetson's assistant director of media relations.

"Where I'm at right now is there are other options for safety — such as speed bumps, flashing red light, a crosswalk push-button red light or restricting traffic to a much slower speed — so it's hard for me to support Stetson's proposal at this time," Roman said. "I really have to take the community into account, and I get where they're coming from."

"The ball is in Stetson's court," she said.

Nancy McCann is a student journalist at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.