Patrick Henry Elementary School project reaches critical stage, but headaches remain

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Patrick Henry Elementary School project reaches critical stage, but headaches remain
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By Chris Teale (Image/Alexandria City Public Schools)

Patrick Henry Elementary School has stood at its current site on Taney Avenue since 1953, and for the past two years the Alexandria City School Board has been working on a plan to either renovate or demolish and replace the aging building where nearly 600 students attend pre-K through fifth grade. Board members are set to vote on moving the project forward into the design phase this evening at a public board meeting.

The project includes an expansion of Patrick Henry into a pre-K-8 school for 800 students, which means the school would join Jefferson-Houston as the second pre-K-8 school in Alexandria City Public Schools. The project is estimated to cost between $38 million and $41 million, and is scheduled to open in fall 2018.

The process has gathered pace in recent months, as the school board moves closer towards a recommendation for a build option to take into the design phase of the project. But many pitfalls still remain, with board members and neighbors alike expressing serious reservations with some aspects of the proposal.

It is further complicated by the city’s desire to redevelop the Patrick Henry Recreation Center next door. As school board members finalize their choice for the school project, city officials still are developing their own plans to revamp the recreational center.

That wrench in the works has frustrated school board members, who are determined to keep their own process on schedule and prevent it slipping behind despite the lack of a decision on the city side.

“I don’t want to be bound by a decision that has not been made by the city,” board member Marc Williams said at a meeting on June 2. “It seems like, at least for me, this sort of big blank space up in the top is unduly restricting us. I don’t want us to be bound as well.”

“This [rec center project] is turning it into a bone with two dogs,” said board member Patricia Hennig at a previous meeting last month. “I would not be comfortable with a go-ahead on this until we know what’s coming out of City Hall.”

As part of their feasibility study examining the redevelopment of Patrick Henry Elementary and what form it might take, the school board was presented with three options for a new building and a fourth option to renovate and repair the existing campus by D.C.-based Sorg Architects.

The first option — known as new building option 1a in the feasibility study produced by the project team — proposes placing the school at the corner of North Latham Street and Taney Avenue, with the recreation center in the rear. New building option 1b is similar, albeit with the school positioned further back from North Latham Street.

New building option 2 sets a three-story wing for the new site away from North Latham Street, which the study says will create an open plaza in front of the building. The study also notes that this option would locate the new building around the existing school, so there would be no need to move students during construction.

The final option is a complete renovation of the existing school site with an addition that would meet the space requirements for becoming a pre-K-8 school. It would be highlighted by a three-story addition along Taney Avenue, although it would require the most “swing space” during construction and so would be the most disruptive to students.

Since the feasibility study was unveiled, the architects made several changes to the plans following community feedback, including a repositioning of bus lanes and shifting the possible location of the school and recreation center. In addition, ACPS staffers presented their recommended option to the school board on May 14, and determined that option 2 was their preferred choice as it uses the current building for swing space, eliminates the need for temporary trailers and preserves green space.

But a number of issues still remain, the most notable of which is the location of an entrance and exit to a parking lot on Latham Street, which is a residential street. The parking situation came in for particular criticism at a special meeting held by the school board on May 19, in which a number of residents voiced their concerns at the plans, arguing that the use of Latham Street for an entrance and exit to a parking lot would be in violation of the city’s own traffic rules.

“The option of having a parking lot access off Latham Street is completely unacceptable to the city’s own traffic studies,” resident Dave Beulke said. “I’m curious to find out why the architect did not follow the city’s recommendation. How is the design acceptable for the school board?

“The local community has repeatedly noted that it does not want any school or rec center traffic or parking off Latham Street. When are the plans going to be published to confirm the changes to this parking lot so that all parties can be taken care of?”

“Our community values its quiet streets and open spaces, and we have major concerns about the increased traffic and decline in open space that will result from these plans,” resident Mary Biegel agreed. “The city classifies Latham Street as a residential street. It and Peacock are narrow roads that cannot and should not handle this traffic. City documents state local traffic should be encouraged while cut-through traffic should be discouraged.

“There are also significant visibility issues at the corner of Latham and Polk, which would be a significant safety issues. My neighbors and I have voiced these concerns many times, but we continue to see points of ingress and egress located on Latham. We also know that no traffic study has been performed yet. It’s not acceptable that these plans, which would have such a large impact on the safety and tranquility of our neighborhood, continue to move forward.”

Board members shared the residents’ concerns about the parking situation on Latham Street, with some asking that the entrance and exit be either removed from the architect’s renderings or modified so it is for use in emergencies only. On June 2, board members Justin Keating, Kelly Booz and Hennig all expressed strong reservations, but chair Karen Graf said that at this stage, the study should be presented in full and then modified when the board approves an option.

The board is poised to vote on whether or not to approve construction this evening, with consensus in prior meetings suggesting that option 2 is set to be their choice to move into the design phase. But a final design for the site is still in the works, and will be reached following further community input as they look to address concerns surrounding the project.

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