Plans for a new traffic signal at the Dunwoody Nature Center and adding turn lanes and new sidewalks along Roberts Drive in preparation for the new Austin Elementary School opening next year are in the works. Some residents are raising concerns about potential tree loss and added school congestion on the busy main road and into surrounding neighborhoods.

The changes to the intersection are intended to handle the increase in traffic due to the opening of the new 900-seat Austin Elementary School next fall. The current school was opened in 1975 and has about 700 students. The new school is being built to alleviate overcrowding and is slated to open next fall adjacent to the Nature Center and where the former Dunwoody Senior Baseball fields were located.

Proposed changes to Roberts Drive in front of the Dunwoody Nature Center and where the new Austin Elementary School is being built include a traffic signal, turn lanes and a sidewalk. (City of Dunwoody)

At a May 10 open house at Dunwoody City Hall, more than a dozen people living in the nearby neighborhoods reviewed a concept plan that include adding a traffic signal at the entrance of the Nature Center, added right and turn left lanes on Roberts Drive and installing a sidewalk on the west side of Roberts Drive from Dunwoody Knoll to Chamblee-Dunwoody Road.

Barbara Binder has lived on Wynter Creek Lane of Roberts Road for 40 years. She said she was used to baseball traffic and the cheering and applause that came from baseball games. But she is concerned about school buses traveling into the school early in the morning.

“The buses will be going right behind out house,” she said at the open house. “They are loud, noisy and dirty. And there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Sarah Dekutowski, whose home on Holly Bank Circle backs up the Nature Center, said her major concern is congestion. She said current school traffic already causes major backups on Roberts Road.

“We’re used to Austin Elementary School traffic, but generally [the school] has been good to neighbors,” she said. “Cars don’t take over our neighborhood when there is a school event, or when there is a Nature Center event. But there will be a lot more kids.”

She said she’s rather see children walking to school rather than carpooling.

The traffic signal in front of the current Austin Elementary is planned to be relocated to Roberts Park Road, currently a private road that provides access to the Dunwoody Nature Center. This road is proposed to serve as a joint driveway to the Nature Center and the new school’s visitors and parent drop-off/pickup driveway.

A separate bus entrance is proposed to be built off Roberts Drive between the Nature Center and Wyntercreek Road.

A right and left turn lane at the northern entrance of the school at the Nature Center driveway along with some road widening for turn lanes traveling north and south on Roberts Drive are also proposed.

A ballpark figure for the project is estimated at perhaps $1 million, according to Public Works Director Michael Smith. But a final estimate won’t be known until engineering and design plans are completed this summer. Smith plans to make a presentation of the proposed intersection changes to the City Council at its May 21 meeting.

Dunwoody Capital Projects Manager Ishri Sankar points out proposed changes on Roberts Drive during a May 10 open house at City Hall. (Dyana Bagby)

Nature Center Executive Director Alan Mothner attended the open house and said he would like to see more details of the concept plan. The entrance to the Nature Center now is filled with bushes and plants and includes a Nature Center sign. He wants to ensure that entrance maintains a natural look and doesn’t become too institutionalized with it also being the school’s entrance along with a new school sign.

“I think the improvements will be great,” Mothner said in an interview. “But the plan was pretty vague and there was not a lot of detail.”

Robert Wittenstein also wants to make sure the traffic signal is timed to allow for many cars to exit the Nature Center following big events, like its popular summer concert series. Typically, the light will favor motorists traveling on Roberts Drive.

“My main concern is … that if the light favors Roberts Drive, only two or three cars will be able to leave the Nature Center at a time,” he said. “The city needs to come up with a scheme that allows that light to be changed when necessary.”

Several people are also concerned about the new sidewalk planned from Dunwoody Knoll to Chamblee-Dunwoody Road. Building this sidewalk means using the city’s right-of-way and encroaching into some people’s yards. The historic Swancy Farmhouse at 5308 Roberts Drive, across the street from the Nature Center, is built close to the road. The new sidewalk would take out most of the front yard.

“They’re going to encroach into some yards, particularly the historic cottage that was built in the 1800s,” Wittenstein said. “[The sidewalk] will take up the only piece of grass they have between the curb and the fence.”

There is also a brick wall around the adjacent Fairfield neighborhood. Some residents there are concerned about trees being cut down and their root structures damaged, possibly weakening the wall.

“Our big concern is extending the sidewalk in front of the historic home and the effect it will have on trees and our wall,” said George Stewart, a Fairfield resident.

A sidewalk is proposed to be built in front of the historic Swancy Farmhouse on Roberts Drive. (Google Maps)

Dennis Larry, also a Fairfield resident, has been picking up his grandchildren at the current AES for three years. He said the proposed sidewalk is a “sidewalk to nowhere” because most children attending the school don’t walk.

“It seems to be a useless expense and potentially damaging hardwood trees,” he said. “We love the neighborhood the way it is. We just don’t see the point. But I don’t think there is much we can say. It looks like the city is going to do it.”

Mayor Denis Shortal said he understands people’s concerns about trees. The city is planning to use an air spade, a special tool that blows supersonic air to clear dirt away from tree roots rather than an actual shovel or other cutting tool. Using air to blow away the dirt is expected to preserve tree roots. The city would then put sand and pea gravel over the roots, allowing oxygen and water through to try to keep the tree alive.

Meandering sidewalks around trees and a retaining wall across the street from Wyntercreek Road are also proposed to save trees, he said.

“Everybody is concerned about change and I can’t blame them,” he said. “The calming factor is we have a reputation we will do what we say and make it better.”

Councilmember Terry Nall said it was nice to have residents see the concept plans and offer input and feedback.

“On the bigger picture we are excited about having Austin Elementary School in the neighborhood,” he said. “Schools make communities and communities make schools.”

City officials hope a contract can be awarded by December with construction to begin in early 2019 and completed before the new Austin Elementary School opens in the fall.

The city and DeKalb County School reached a deal in 2016 to move the baseball fields in Dunwoody Park to land that had been part of Peachtree Charter Middle School to allow the school district to build the Austin Elementary School on land that once belonged to the city as part of Dunwoody Park.

The city will also get the property where the current Austin Elementary School stands to potentially become a park. The city also received $3.6 million from DeKalb Schools as part of the deal.

More information on the project can be found by clicking here.

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.