By Chris Teale (File photo)
City council unanimously approved the redevelopment of the Patrick Henry Elementary School and Recreation Center at its public hearing Saturday after testimony from school staff, parents and students alike in support of the plan.
Numerous residents who spoke in support of the plan at the weather-delayed hearing said it is the safest of the two final alternatives that were before the Alexandria City School Board earlier this year, and supported academics best.
Councilors agreed with that assessment about the proposal for the Taney Avenue site.
“I’m excited for this project,” said Vice Mayor Justin Wilson. “I really like the design, it’s really going to be a landmark school building for us in the city.”
Under the plan, the current 86,000-square foot elementary school would be replaced by a 137,000-square foot pre-K-8 school for 800 students. Currently, it houses nearly 600 students from pre-K through fifth grade.
Meanwhile, the current 9,000-square foot recreation center would expand to 18,000 square feet and feature a synthetic turf athletic field, a hard surface flex-court, three new playgrounds, and landscaped natural open space.
City council has appropriated $42.5 million for the project in the capital budget, plus an additional $2.2 million for the outdoor field, court and playgrounds.
The school board and city council established an advisory group for the project, made up of community members and other stakeholders, to provide guidance to both bodies and staff. At the planning commission’s hearing on this subject earlier this month, conversation was dominated by talk of the advisory group’s effectiveness, and whether it had been used and listened to fully.
At its May 19 meeting, the school board selected the so-called Option A-1, despite the advisory group’s recommendation of Option C-1, citing in part a cost increase of $2 million associated with the other design. But several speakers at city council’s hearing commented on the lack of a consensus among the group, described by at-large member Michael Doney as a “bit of an impasse.”
Mayor Allison Silberberg said it will be key for future redevelopment projects brought forward by Alexandria City Public Schools to ensure the public is brought fully into the process.
“Going forward, I think it’s going to be very important that when we engage with modernization or building of new schools, this is huge money but more importantly it’s about getting it right for the sake of the children,” she said. “But it’s also about engaging the public in a way that they are informed about where we’re headed.”
Wilson and City Councilor Paul Smedberg agreed with school board vice chairman Chris Lewis that the process for these projects can continue to be refined, with Smedberg noting there is “room for improvement” in the public engagement process.
City Councilor Tim Lovain added that such resident-led groups exist to advise rather than make final decisions, and that elected officials should not shirk their duties in that regard.
Residents who spoke said the proposal would be the safest option for students at the rebuilt school. Under this plan, as opposed to Option C-1, students would not be required to enter the school through the recreation center, and would not need to cross multiple lanes of traffic to reach the front door.
The safety concerns on the roads and in a public building weighed heavily on a number of speakers.
“It is imperative that the safety of the children arriving and departing should be the community’s highest concern,” said local resident George Purdue.
No opponents of the project testified before council, but several submitted written statements. One major point of contention in the past has been the potential for traffic congestion on North Latham Street, where school buses will enter and exit the site as well as delivery and trash trucks.
But current Patrick Henry kindergarten teacher Lori Shabazz said the plan would ease the current congestion around the school each morning and afternoon, a scene local resident Asa Orrin Brown described as “chaotic.”
City Councilors John Chapman and Willie Bailey asked city staff to explore whether the parking lot on the site is sufficient, and if extra spaces can be gained to prevent overspill into residential areas.
Rob Kerns, development division chief in the city’s department of planning and zoning, said the parking lot’s number of spaces exceeds that which is required by the zoning ordinance, while City Councilor Del Pepper said the St. Martin’s Senior Citizens Center on Taney Avenue should be asked about using the spaces on its site on rare occasions.
Before council’s approval, teachers and parents alike spoke of the plan’s benefits, especially as the school continues to make great academic strides under principal Ingrid Bynum.
“We have the talent within the staff and the administration to do wonderful things for our children,” said Fred Montgomery, a music teacher at Patrick Henry. “The one thing that we cannot change is the building…The children deserve a new school. They’ve already proven academically they have what it takes to do well.”
“We are teaching 21st century students, and they are more than deserving of a safe, state-of-the-art environment,” said Adrienne Dunbar, a teacher at Patrick Henry. “Therefore, as we move forward with the Patrick Henry project, help us build a foundation from which we can empower students to build a better tomorrow for us all.”