Parents and teachers at Orchard Elementary School spent the past two years trying to prevent San Jose from building a highway overpass to Charcot Avenue, a project that tested the city’s so-called Vision Zero promise to eliminate traffic deaths.
That battle has now moved to court.
The parent-teacher group, called Protecting the Children of Orchard School, filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the city to prevent the overpass from becoming a reality.
Plaintiffs allege that San Jose’s final environmental impact review—a mandatory step in the planning process to weigh a project’s potential detriments—is “legally inadequate” under the standards set by the California Environmental Quality Act.
The project would extend Charcot Avenue from Paragon Drive to Oakland Road by way of an overpass that stretches across I-880.
But the crux of the issue for parents, teachers and neighbors supporting the lawsuit is that those plans were crafted back in 1994—long before the city signed onto Vision Zero, a commitment to reduce traffic deaths and injuries, in part, through safer infrastructure.
In the 26 years since the city adopted the general plan blueprints that called for the overpass, the industrial neighborhood has transformed, putting down more residential roots in addition to the elementary school campus on Fox Avenue.
Opponents of the project say the overpass would worsen pollution and induce more car traffic that would endanger children walking to school. San Jose would also need to invoke eminent domain to carve out a half-acre of the school’s playground.
City officials, however, say the project is foundational to North San Jose’s growth.
In June, the City Council practically cemented the fate of the proposed overpass when they voted 6-3 to send it to the final design phase. Council members Pam Foley, Magdalena Carrasco and Raul Peralez cast the dissenting votes. Their colleagues Maya Esparza and Sylvia Arenas were absent.
Seeing no other way around the council’s decision that night, parents and teachers who opposed the project decided to take legal action.
Robin Roemer, one of the parents leading the legal charge, said that despite two years of begging and arguing with city officials, their pleas fell on “deaf ears.”
“I don’t see any other way of trying to protect our children,” he said about the lawsuit. “It’s not something I think that any of us wants to do or was looking forward to, but we’re running out of options and it sometimes felt as if that was the city staff’s plan to try to ram this through with the thought of what is the community going to do?”
Oakland-based Aqua Terra Aeris Law Group, which specializes in environmental justice cases, prepared the 17-page civil complaint that details numerous examples in which the city allegedly “failed to evaluate” or “assess the full scope” of environmental impacts.
The impacts, according to the lawsuit, include increased traffic, pollution and noise.
Erin McCarthy, president of the Orchard Teachers’ Association, has worked as an instructor at the school since 1999. In her view, the city is prioritizing cars over children.
“It would impact our learning environment exponentially,” she said. “It’s taking a good portion of our campus away and we already don’t have a lot of space.”
McCarthy also expressed concerns about student safety since many children walk to campus or use the playground after hours and on weekends.
The city plans to install a high-visibility crosswalk at Fox Lane and Ridder Park Drive, but for many parents and teachers, that isn’t enough.
“There’s absolutely no way to make it zero danger,” McCarthy said. “But I don’t think it’s OK to make it more dangerous.”
To cover the group’s legal costs, Roemer set up a GoFundMe, which raised more than $2,000 in the first five days. He estimates they will need about $15,000 for the legal battle. Any leftover dollars will be redirected to the school’s PTA.
The city of San Jose, through Acting City Attorney Nora Frimann, declined to comment.