By Chris Teale (Image/City of Alexandria)
Alexandria City Council gave the green light to a new Patrick Henry Recreation Center for the West End at its legislative meeting last week, but councilors were frustrated by a process that left them little choice but to approve a plan in spite of what they felt was a lack of public engagement.
Councilors were presented with three options for the new recreation center, slated for the same site as the new Patrick Henry Elementary School, a plan for which was advanced by the school board last month. Of the three options, council selected the so-called “neighborhood” option, designed for households within a one-mile radius. The other two options were for one with amenities to attract residents citywide and another aimed only at families with students enrolled at the school.
The school and recreation center projects have been developed separately, even though they will occupy the same site on Taney Avenue. The separation led to confusion and the ire of councilors, who felt that it should be treated as a joint facility and a joint construction project rather than two separate proposals.
“Certainly this has not been an ideal process at all, and I am frustrated by that,” said City Councilor Justin Wilson. “For whatever reason, we have not well coordinated this build with the schools over the last several months and it’s frustrating because we’re in a bad place right now because of that.
“In many ways, the cart came before the horse because we talked about the site’s specific issues before we finalized the use. An overarching issue I’m frustrated about here and have been frustrated about on other projects is that we just have to stop viewing these public projects as single-use. Let’s figure out both of them. This is a joint facility we’re developing, we have to see it as that and develop it as that. We’ve just been unable to do that for whatever reason. We have to get that right, because it’s infuriating to be here.”
“I don’t think we can separate these issues, I agree there should be a joint effort,” said City Councilor Paul Smedberg. “This was not good at all, and we can’t separate the programming and the design and knowing how the school is. Once we decide this, despite the [special use permit] process, we’re way down the path from dramatically being able to impact anything here.
“We are now in the position of having to make a decision tonight, and by somehow we asking questions up here, [we] are somehow being put in the position as representatives where we are holding up the process if we don’t make a decision tonight. That to me is really unfortunate and really unfair, and that’s what I personally resent. This could have been celebrated by this neighborhood and this community, but instead now we’re in this position.”
Councilors also criticized the lack of a council public hearing on the recreation center project. City Councilor Del Pepper said neighbors were not given adequate time to respond to the numerous tweaks to the plan in the last three weeks. She initially offered a motion to delay council’s vote and hold a public hearing in September, when councilors return from summer recess. In that hearing, councilors would look to hear directly from the neighbors about the project and get more of an idea of what they would like to see in the new recreation center.
“I have to say, this was a really bad process,” Pepper said. “Neighbors who were opposed didn’t get their say, their chance to speak before an elected body. I’d like to know from anybody who’d like to answer, what would make the difference if we did not vote on this until there was a public hearing either during the summer, which we wouldn’t really like, or until September? What would be the difference there?”
“I don’t want to be telling the community what we want in a building in terms of programming,” added Mayor Bill Euille. “I think the community ought to be making that decision — it’s their facility. Why can’t we not slow this train down and continue to have community engagement?”
Councilors also decried the lack of discussion about the impact on open space a new recreation center and school would have on the area, and also how the parking lots’ entrances and exits would be configured. Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg said there were “so many unanswered questions here,” and went on to express her unease at the lack of discussion about who would be in charge of the center’s Head Start location. She said preservation of open space should be a priority, something City Councilor John Chapman agreed with.
Based on a report by city staff, the neighborhood option provides a variety of programs for both the during school year and over the summer, providing space for youth soccer programs, flag football, specialized summer camps for arts and sports and other indoor activities. It also would contain space for meeting rooms and senior club programs.
But councilors felt they were being pressured into a binding decision on the project’s size and structure through the discussion of programming at the new recreation center.
“Effectively, after tonight, the site configuration is basically done,” said Smedberg, arms flailing out of sheer frustration. “I think it’s basically done. If they’re keeping the existing school, it’s done. That’s it. The only thing we could potentially configure are the entrances and exits. There’s public safety issues, school requirements for buses and turning radiuses. In effect, even that’s probably pretty constrained in what we can realistically do.”
When the vote came, approval of the neighborhood option was unanimous, but the motion for approval came with a series of caveats. City staff was asked to continue its collaboration with the school board and staff over a number of design options and site layout of the school and recreation center that are mindful of residents’ concerns. It also requested a written community engagement process that would then be deployed in summer and early fall to get feedback on those options ahead of the fall, when a work session would be held to review progress.
City councilors agreed on one thing at the meeting: the process needs to be tightened up for future projects, and should have been executed much better for this one.