Patrick Henry project hits crucial juncture

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Patrick Henry project hits crucial juncture
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By Chris Teale (Image/City of Alexandria)

The proposed reconstruction of the Patrick Henry Elementary School and Recreation Center will come under fresh scrutiny next week, as the planning commission is set to examine the plan December 6.

The current 86,000-square foot elementary school has stood at its present site on Taney Avenue since 1953, and the Alexandria City School Board hopes to replace the aging building and make Patrick Henry a 137,000-square foot pre-K-8 school for 800 students. Currently, it houses nearly 600 students from pre-K through fifth grade.

Under the proposal, the new Patrick Henry School would join Jefferson-Houston School as the second pre-K-8
school in Alexandria City Public Schools.

Meanwhile, the current 9,000-square foot recreation center would expand to 18,000 square feet under the redevelopment project and feature a synthetic turf athletic field, a hard surface flex-court, three new playgrounds, and landscaped natural open space.

In June 2015, council approved a recommendation of the city’s department of recreation, parks and cultural activities to design a “neighborhood” center focused on serving families within a one-mile radius.

At that time, the projects were being developed separately by city and ACPS staff, and since then have been coupled to ensure synergy between the two projects. During construction, the current facilities will remain open, and will be demolished once the redevelopment is completed.

But the process has not been without controversy, particularly around the design of the school. On May 19, the school board approved the so-called Option A-1 for the design of Patrick Henry, despite the fact that the resident-led Patrick Henry Advisory Group recommended Option C-1 instead.

At city council’s legislative meeting on September 13, City Councilor Del Pepper, a member of the advisory group, noted that its vote on the matter was in strong support of C-1.

In light of the group’s recommendation, the school board requested more data to compare both options, and decided that A-1 was the best value and more fiscally responsible given the financial constraints on city coffers.

A report by project management firm Brailsford and Dunlavey and the ACPS de- sign review team found that the three-story design of Option A-1 was better since grades six through eight would be placed on their own floor, separate from the lower grades.

Traffic consultant Wells and Associates found that both options were similar in terms of safety and traffic flow.
“While both plans are safe and offer community benefits, the school board landed on the most economical choice,” said school board chairwoman Karen Graf at the time. “With so many maintenance and capacity needs across the division, adding $1.5 million to $2 million to the project proved too expensive for the school board to pursue.

“We are confident that in the end, the neighborhood will gain a beautiful school and recreation center where families can congregate and engage in community activities for years to come.”

Previously, local residents have been critical of the location of a parking lot exit and entrance on Latham Street, a residential street, as well as a reduction of open space included in the project. According to a staff report on the plan, 76 percent of the current site is open space, a number that would drop to 64 percent under this proposal.

“Our community values its quiet streets and open spaces, and we have major concerns about the increased traffic and decline in open space that will result from these plans,” said resident Mary Biegel at a school board meeting last year. “The city classifies Latham Street as a residential street. It and Peacock are narrow roads that cannot and should not handle this traffic. City documents state local traffic should be encouraged while cut-through traffic should be discouraged.”

City council ran into problems of its own when approving the site of the new recreation center, and criticized city staff for a process they felt did not leave enough room for community engagement on both the siting and programming that would be available in the new building.

“I have to say, this was a really bad process,” Pepper said last year. “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?”

The staff report on the project recommends approval, and notes public benefits that include a new LEED Silver school building, a new recreation center, a new and enhanced streetscape along Taney Avenue and North Latham Street and new out- door amenities for community and school use.

City council will examine and vote on the project at its December 17 public hearing. If approved, ACPS officials said construction is anticipated to begin in June 2017, with the new facilities slated to open in September 2018.

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