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Gil Baumgarten thought the J-shaped driveway would be the perfect finishing touch for his addition last year to his fashionable Bellaire home. Workers carefully cleared away the grass and put in a bed of sand to prepare for the pavement that would connect his corner-lot drive to both Valerie and Ferris streets.
But before the contractor could lay the concrete, an intruder's car laid waste to the project. Baumgarten came out to find telltale tire tracks through the sand. He says he didn't have to look far to see where the culprit came from -- nearby Bellaire High School. A student thought the new sand route would be the ideal detour to avoid the stop sign on the corner.
"That's the general obnoxious behavior that agitates me," explains Baumgarten, who eventually finished his driveway project. Now he has become a leader in the neighborhood's drive to purge their streets of parking for students.
He and another cohort in the conflict, neighbor Ned Higgins, cite all sorts of severe problems brought on by having schoolkids parking along their streets. Higgins complains of loud stereos, screeching tires, foul language, blocked driveways, litter and worse. Some neighbors swear that rowdy youths tromp through their yards on the way to cars, peer through windows and even have sex in the backseats in broad daylight.
The school, with an enrollment of about 3,000, has room on campus for about 145 student parking spaces, and another 40 or so curbside to the campus. But that leaves an estimated 400 other student cars with no place but the streets near the school at 5100 Maple.
Although some students admit that a few of the drivers get out of hand with their antics, they question the claims by residents. Skeptics wonder if the hysteria over high school parkers is merely more of the gentrification of the area, a way to seal off the neighborhood from kids in general, including the less affluent and minorities who are among the students brought in from other areas.
Bellaire High, a part of the Houston Independent School District, has been around since 1955, longer than Higgins and Baumgarten and most of the complaining crowd have lived in Bellaire.
Bus service is available for about one-third of the students, but that doesn't mean they take advantage of it. Seniors get priority for the 145-space lot on the cramped 18-acre campus. Recognizing the increasing severity of the issue, Bellaire City Council formed a six-member citizens panel in June to come up with possible answers.
The school district offers no solutions. HISD spokesman Terry Abbott says the district plans no changes to handle the added parking needs on campus. City parking committee chairman David Cantz says he is surprised by HISD's lack of solutions. He compares the situation to businesses that are required to provide parking for workers. "The way I see it, Bellaire High School is a business; the staff, faculty and students are their employees. HISD is not providing adequate parking for their business."
Compounding the conflict is that Bellaire students can leave campus for lunch. That sends some of them back to their cars over the noon hour, causing more congestion. And, residents say, that means more fast-food trash along their curbs and lawns. Baumgarten wants off-campus lunches banned, an idea deemed totally unacceptable by Mary Green, the school's PTO vice president. Parents fought for "open lunch" for the kids years ago, she says, because they felt children didn't have enough food options at the school and its congested cafeteria.
Bellaire city council left the food fight alone, but on July 10 its committee announced proposed solutions to student parking; they range from banning on-street parking to a compromise that was clearly favored by councilmembers and residents near the school.
That plan would allow only one student parking space per home during weekday school hours. The student parking spot would be marked with a painted curb, and each car would be identified by a permit issued to the student. Residents could park in that space only if they had a residential permit.
The plan would reduce the number of student cars per block, but would not solve the underlying problems behind the residents' complaints: their gripes about the conduct of the kids along their streets.
"I have a problem with disrespectful students who flip the bird at and curse around my children," explains Baumgarten. In his best curmudgeon tone, he recites traffic violations he has witnessed by students. "I generally see a bunch of idiots."
Despite being among the student driving "idiots," as Baumgarten calls them, Bellaire senior Justin Schultz seems remarkably sane. Simple arithmetic shows that the permit-parking plan would leave students without adequate parking spaces on the streets, and that would push the problems six blocks out from the school, the 17-year-old student notes.
"And that's ridiculous. I don't see how the residents can do this without having a guilty conscience," Schultz says. "Some residents will just end up selling the other spot to the highest-bidding student anyway, and that will just create a huge bidding war."
He believes the solution is as simple as having the Bellaire police enforce existing laws regarding traffic violations, unruly conduct and littering. Curbs near driveways are already painted yellow to stop students from hindering residents' access to driveways, but Schultz says, "I have friends who park in the yellow ten days in row without getting tickets, and they're proud of it," he says.