Neighbors leery of plan for preschool

By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / July 10, 2011

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Plans to build a high-end preschool in a Lincoln residential neighborhood have drawn objections from residents who feel that it would destroy the rural character of the area and cause traffic jams along Route 126.

The Teddy Bear Club, a Newton-based preschool that offers bilingual staff and instruction in French, wants to open its second school location at a large house on the corner of Farrar and Concord roads.

The proposed school at 1 Farrar Road would be similar in size and scope to the company’s successful Newton operation on Commonwealth Avenue, said Derek Perlman, son of the Teddy Bear Club founders Laura and Sydney Perlman and spokesman for the business.

He said development plans are still being drawn up for the Lincoln school, but he intends it to be “beautiful and meticulous.’’

The company bought the 4,700-square-foot home on 1.8 acres this spring. The asking price for the home, according to real estate listings, was just over $1 million. It will retool parts of the house to accommodate the school, said Perlman.

“Our Newton school is beautiful. We take tremendous pride in what we do, and we are proud to be told by parents that we offer one of the top preschool programs in the Boston area,’’ said Perlman.

The Teddy Bear Club program, which charges a tuition of $16,750 per student per academic year, encourages broad cultural awareness for children ages 2 to 5 by encouraging them to speak French with their teachers and each other.

Nearly 50 Lincoln residents, most opposed to the plan, attended a June 22 public meeting on the proposed preschool. Many were concerned about traffic congestion, noise, and the impact on existing preschools in town.

One neighbor, Gail Alden, said the Teddy Bear Club picked “the wrong spot and wrong town.’’ It’s inappropriate for a for-profit company to “plunk itself down’’ on a residential block, she said.

“This is really out of character,’’ said Alden, whose kitchen window would overlook the new school.

“I am concerned that this business will not give anything back to the community. There is nobody in town who is saying the town needs a new nursery school,’’ she said. “They are not interested in being part of the community and this has not been a neighborly process.’’

Another Lincoln resident, Jason Felsch, said he objected to a company making a profit on a project that would create a burden for the town. “I don’t consider it a preschool as much as a private company,’’ he said.

Commuters already clog routes 126 and 117 in the mornings and evenings, and the proposed school stands to make congestion there even worse, he said. Felsch said he also worried for the safety of pedestrians on the road and those who use local walking paths, as well as the children at the school itself.

“I think the project needs a lot of scrutiny,’’ said Felsch.

Perlman said his company is trying to ease neighbors’ concerns about traffic and will implement a drop-off and pickup system that has worked well in Newton. Traffic is strictly controlled there, with three staffers escorting children to their parents’ cars at one time, he said.

He said the proposed Teddy Bear Club will give back to the Lincoln community. “We have become a huge asset to the Newton community. There is an overwhelming demand for our program and we are told by many, many parents that we have helped their children become successful academically.’’

The Teddy Bear Club, or “Le Club Nounours,’’ was founded 15 years ago by the Perlman family to combine language skills and early-enrichment lessons. The school fought a lengthy battle in 2003 to move to its current 1466 Commonwealth Ave. location in Newton from Chestnut Hill. Back then, neighborhood opponents protested that the plan would produce massive traffic backups on Commonwealth Avenue.

The school is protected by the Dover Amendment, which allows educational and religious institutions - even for-profit schools like the Teddy Bear Club that pay local property taxes - to override local zoning laws, but school officials did not invoke the law to settle in Newton.

The Lincoln location has even more room than the Newton campus for traffic and parking, said Perlman.

The dire predictions of Commonwealth Avenue backups never happened, Perlman said in a telephone interview last week. The school - which enrolls about 55 students in its three-hour morning session and about the same number in its afternoon session - is careful to control the pickup and drop-off sessions, which are closely engineered by headset-wearing administrators, he said.

“Our queue has never spilled over onto the roadway. It doesn’t stop traffic,’’ Perlman said.

Newton transportation engineer Jim Danila said he was not in his position when the school first settled at 1466 Commonwealth Ave., but that he was aware of no traffic complaints about the school in his two years on the job.

Perlman said his family planned to proceed gingerly in Lincoln, hoping to garner more local support. He hopes to produce plans by summer’s end, but has no timeline for when the new school would open.

“We want to keep having feedback from the neighbors and be open with them,’’ he said. “We know the top concern is safety, and that is our top priority as well. We are a local, family-owned business that wants to bring a valuable service to the community.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at