Your View: Patrick Henry Elementary and recreation center project is a debacle

Your View: Patrick Henry Elementary and recreation center project is a debacle

By William Goff, Alexandria (File photo)

To the editor:
After years of negligence in school maintenance, the city now is faced with the daunting task of renovating and rebuilding 12 of our schools at a staggering cost of $1.5 billion. It boggles the mind as to where those funds to maintain and renovate schools were finally allocated.

Could those funds have been used to help pay for cost overruns at T.C Williams, Jefferson-Houston and the police station? Regardless of how the funds were squandered, it is now time to begin the process to improve our school infrastructure so we can improve our academic standing. I have never been a big infrastructure guy, but our infrastructure is so damaged
that a healthy infrastructure with adequate space, functioning utilities, windows and standard facilities will greatly aid academic performance.

The first school on our list of rebuilds is Patrick Henry, which will grow from 667 students to more than 900 students. A school located right smack in a neighborhood and we need to expand its capacity by one third. The neighbors wanted three things: to limit bus and car traffic on Latham Street; to keep as much of the well-used open space as possible; and to have the school fit the neighborhood in architectural design and location. So what happened?

Last September, the city department of recreation, parks and cultural activities decided it was in the neighborhood’s best interest to drop a 30,000 square-foot recreation center on the neighborhood, more than three times larger than what was previously present. According to city staff, it would be outsourced for revenue, meaning we will rent it out a lot to pay for it.

The bottom line is that means more congestion in the neighborhood. Within a period of one less than one month, the rec center options were presented to the community and it then came before the city council for a vote. City Councilor Paul Smedberg expressed his anger at a city council meeting, saying that whoever was a part in planning this project should be fired and the process needed to be redone.

Now reduced to 18,000 square feet, this proposal might seem like a victory, but the center is still too large. It is twice the size of what was there and grows to 30,000 square feet when the shared space with the school is included. It mimics a city recreation center, not a neighborhood-focused one. It does not belong in a residential neighborhood and it is too expensive.

Most recently the city and neighbors seemed to have reached a compromise with an option that incorporates no bus routes on Taney Avenue, but also includes a larger recreation center than is needed for the neighborhood, less open space and a “high-use athletic field” that may be turfed with no ban on lights. The field currently at Patrick Henry is not a high-use field — it features some soccer and lacrosse — it is a neighborhood field and as such should remain so.

The federal government currently is investigating turf fields for health hazards. To propose a turf field with any possibility of a health issue looming is reckless, as for open space a turf field is green cement, not grass.

Earlier this month, the planning commission and Moseley architects surprised the community when they developed and presented a plan — a prototype of option A but with bus routes on Latham. The very thing the residents wanted most was removed. The school board in a meeting blasted the plan to allow buses on Latham and rejected it.

My questions to residents are: Who is running this project? Why are the residents being ignored? Why would you want to devalue the neighborhood property values? Why do we rely on rental revenue to pay for a rec center instead of building to scale and what we need and can afford? Is every renovation project going to be like this? The project is a debacle and an embarrassment. We need to start over and get it right.