HERMISTON - The Planning Commission approved a new preschool Wednesday in an area where many children live.

Umatilla-Morrow Head Start Inc. plans to build an $800,000, three-classroom building in Victory Square Park. The building would replace the tennis courts, said City Planner Clint Spencer.

He explained to commissioners that the Umatilla County Housing Authority owns 9 3/4 acres south of Orchard Avenue and East of West 11th Street. It leases the area not occupied by Foxwood Apartments to the city for park purposes.

The tennis courts, Spencer said, are not heavily used and need to be replaced or removed, so building a preschool on the site is fine because the city still will have adequate park land to meet the guidelines for its population.

In response to a question about traffic hazards at the busy intersection of West Orchard Avenue and 11th Street, Spencer said the Oregon Department of Transportation intends to realign the intersection this year and install a traffic signal.

"We will see the Orchard-11th intersection improve quite a bit before the end of the year," he said.

Tony Monroe of Pinnacle Architecture Inc., Bend, said his firm has designed the 5,000-square-foot structure so it resembles an old school.

"The facility will almost be seamless with the park," he said.

The project includes a drive-through parking area for parents' and bus drivers' convenience and children's safety as they are dropped off or picked up from school.

Asked about the timeline for construction, Monroe said Head Start hopes to advertise for bids within a month.

"We're actually trying to occupy this building in August," he said.

Cathy Wamsley, executive director of Umatilla-Morrow Head Start, said the new school would accommodate 50 children and would allow Head Start to consolidate five Hermiston centers into four.

It will have a staff of eight teachers and assistants, a cook and an assistant for two morning and two afternoon classes. One classroom will be reserved for future use, she said.

Head Start intends to close centers at Northeast Fourth Street and Newport Avenue and at West Park Elementary School, she said.Wamsley said the agency serves 150 children in Hermiston and has 200 on a waiting list.

Stan Stradley, executive director of the Umatilla County Housing Authority, was among three who spoke in favor of the application. He expressed strong support for the preschool in the area surrounded by apartments.

"Many of our clients use the Head Start program," he said.

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