Planning commission advances new school proposal

Planning commission advances new school proposal

By Chris Teale (Image/City of Alexandria)

The city planning commission unanimously advanced a plan by Alexandria City Public Schools to convert West End office space into an elementary school at its meeting September 8.

ACPS put forward a proposal to acquire and then retrofit an office building at 1701 N. Beauregard St. and its adjoining parking lot at 1705 N. Beauregard St.

And while this approval is just the first of a number of steps in the school system’s review process, it represents significant progress toward ACPS easing capacity concerns on the West End.

According to a statement released by the school district, the new school could house as many as 650 students, and also could provide preschool offerings. Officials said the goal is to have the school open by September 2017, with the Alexandria City School Board slated to vote on the final location Thursday night.

City planning director Karl Moritz said at the meeting that ACPS is in the midst of its due diligence phase, meaning it is conducting a building assessment to weigh its suitability as a school. The planning commission’s task in the meeting was to determine whether the conversion of the office space into a school was compatible with the city’s master plan and the Beauregard small area plan.

Moritz said city staff believed the plan was “certainly not inconsistent” with both plans, a view shared by commissioners.

“Personally, as a parent of two small children, I’m not quite convinced this is the best location for a school site,” said commission vice chairman Nathan Macek. “But I acknowledge at the same time that there is a real challenge with finding space in the city for adequate education facilities. We can’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”

ACPS faces stark capacity concerns across the system, and started the work toward com- bating that with the endorsement of its long-range facilities plan for the elementary level last year. It proposed building a new elementary school on the West End or finding existing space to be converted.

In the plan, officials anticipate ACPS enrollment will grow steadily from the 2014-2015 figure of around 14,000 students to 17,419 by the 2024-2025 academic year. ACPS officials said the opening of school last week marked the first year that the student population has exceed- ed the number of seats available.

In addition, given the pace of development in recent years, there is very little open space available for new schools. As such, ACPS chief operating officer Clarence Stukes said new approaches must be taken.

“Because the city is fairly well built out in many places, creative options are being pursued to house students, such as the renovation of an existing commercial building,” he said.

Stukes said options on the West End have been under examination since last fall and commissioners said they were struck by the lack of local precedent for such a project. Retrofitting has been used successfully in other municipalities, including at Bailey’s Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences in Bailey’s Crossroads.

At that school, part of Fairfax County Public Schools, a second campus for grades three through five was opened for the 2014-2015 school year in a converted five-story office building. That location is 1.4 miles from the school’s original location, and helped ease overcrowding.

And since it is new, commissioners said such an approach must be taken carefully to ensure no child’s education is negatively affected.

“Frankly, the idea of urban schools in these semi-urban locations has never come up one way or the other before,” said planning commissioner David Brown. “What struck me the most about this was not so much a master plan issue but I guess you might even call it a pedagogical issue, making sure if we do adapt this creative, different way of creating a school, different from what we have elsewhere. …

“We have to be very careful about its impact on students, especially if there is a more conventional type of school across the street at John Adams [Elementary School].”

Commissioner Stephen Koenig asked how ACPS intended to ensure the proposed elementary school solves the open space requirements of educational facilities, and that students have enough play space.

Stukes said several different options are under consideration, including having some of the school’s play space located on the roof of the multi-story parking lot.

Macek said access to the site by buses and other vehicles must be considered as well, and that the school must function well with all these factors.

The school board’s decision on a location is expected by the end of the month, and Moritz said either a special use permit or a development site plan will come before the planning com- mission and city council for final approval. ACPS officials said they intend to be “good neighbors,” and will host a meeting in the future to discuss nearby residents’ concerns.