(Image/Alexandria City Public Schools)
As they say, timing is everything. In show business, a sense of timing can be the difference between lasting success and a fleeting career. Timing is crucial for a good meal; no one wants a Thanksgiving dinner with hot turkey and cold mashed potatoes. Timing things right also is vital for construction projects if they are to be done correctly and completed on time, within budget.
The City of Alexandria is faced with a timing conundrum as it considers remodeling or rebuilding Patrick Henry Elementary School and the adjacent recreation center. For now we will set aside a discussion of the $40 million price tag to build a pre-K-8 school, and instead focus on the logistical obstacles that loom before the project.
To wit, city and school officials are struggling to align the various elements of this project, which include a likely rebuild of the 62-year-old school, a rebuild or renovation of the recreation center, where to locate these new buildings on the site, the location of and access points for the parking lot, and a traffic and parking impact study.
The Alexandria City School Board is ready to move forward with the school renovation — it has three new building options plus one renovation plan on the table. But foot-dragging by the city on plans for a new rec center threatens to delay the project. Choosing a location for the parking lot, and access points in and out of that lot, can’t be determined until a rec center design is on the table.
The issue could stem from how to fund the recreation center side of the project. City staffers have approached Alexandria nonprofits in recent years on potential partnerships to help defray the cost of renovating or rebuilding the facility. And rumors have begun to swirl that the project, as originally envisioned, would cost considerably more than the $5.9 million budgeted for the facility, hence city officials returning to residents for more input. The result is frustration all around at the seeming impasse. If funding for the recreation center is indeed the holdup, the city has several options:
1) Proceed with the Patrick Henry school rebuild for now, leaving the recreation center as is. The problem with this approach is the rec center’s location will impede options for the new school. But this may be the only choice if the school is to be built by 2018. Doing the projects separately will almost certainly drive up the total cost.
2) Accept a smaller, less-than-optimal recreation facility now so the overall project isn’t held up. Perhaps a larger center could be designed, but only a portion built now. Funds to build the rest of the project in a few years could be added to the capital improvement plan in future budget cycles.
3) At a minimum, while these decisions are being made, go ahead and complete the parking and traffic feasibility study. In general, it makes no sense that these studies are routinely done in Alexandria after projects are approved, when parking and traffic feasibility should be key factors in whether any project should be green-lit in the first place.
A new Patrick Henry school is the most significant capital project currently on the table in Alexandria, aside from the Potomac Yard Metro station. The school board and city government must find a way to move the school forward, even if it means for now
accepting a less-than-optimal adjacent recreation center. It’s time for the city to own up to the cause of the delay. As Patrick Henry himself said, we must “know the worst and provide for it.”