Your View: School revamp shouldn’t play second fiddle to rec center

Your View: School revamp shouldn’t play second fiddle to rec center

By Susan Keightley, Alexandria (File photo)

To the editor:
What does a so-called “destination” recreation center costing at least $5.9 million have to do with a school renovation project? Everything, it would seem.

Sorg Architects recently presented the Alexandria City School Board with options for the modification or rebuilding of Patrick Henry Elementary School, located in my West End residential neighborhood. One of the limitations governing those options was a placeholder box of 25,000-35,000 square feet for a new and vastly enlarged recreation center on the site of the school grounds. This in turn created restrictions on what and where ACPS educational buildings could be placed, and raised separate issues in the community about traffic and safety, height and massing of buildings out of scale with a residential neighborhood, and loss of open space.

Currently, all that is known about this recreation center is that it is slated to house an indoor soccer/sports field and a raised indoor track. Rumor has it only a shell currently could be constructed, as the project’s budget is unlikely to cover the full cost of building such a facility. We don’t know how a $38 million school renovation/reconstruction project came to play second fiddle to this vaguely-conceived recreation center.

We don’t know whether other sites for such a facility even were considered, and we have no idea what the justification for such a massive project was, or how its placeholder ended up in an ACPS-commissioned feasibility study.

If there is a need for such a facility on the West End, there are options other than placing it right in the midst of a quiet residential neighborhood. Why not in Eisenhower Valley or Landmark? Large facilities would fit sites in these neighborhoods, not in Seminary Valley.

Imagine you live across from Patrick Henry. Looking out your window, you see your neighbors enjoying the park — playing games, learning to ride a bike on the grassy field, or walking the dog. There are even woods to the back where foxes and owls reside. During the school year, children are often out running the grassy field or enjoying celebrations and field days. Kids walk to and from school on wide sidewalks. Walkers and runners of all ages, sizes and cultures are constantly out and about. There’s a bit of commuter traffic twice a day and school buses rumble up and down Taney Avenue, but all in all, we have a manageable traffic load on our local streets. In short, our neighborhood has its own quiet vibe and diverse cultural mix.

Now visualize a massive, 60-foot-tall recreation center, towering above the tree canopy. To reach it, you enter off of Latham Street and park in a new parking lot where an existing playing field now sits. It’s open until 10 p.m. and on weekends, and there is a constant stream of traffic coming in and out of that street. Teams come to practice on the indoor field, and run track upstairs. When you add in traffic for an 800-student school, it’s all way too much.

The Seminary Valley community is asking: how in the world did this “destination” recreation center become embedded in and mixed up with a badly needed school renovation? Let ACPS put its educational needs first on this project, find a more suitable site for a city-serving recreation center, retain a neighborhood-centric facility, and, for goodness sake, involve the neighbors and respect the scale and context of each unique residential community in the city.