By Chris Teale (Image/City of Alexandria)
The planning commission unanimously approved the proposed redevelopment of the Patrick Henry Elementary School and Recreation Center last week. City council will examine the plan Saturday at its public hearing.
Commissioners focused the majority of their discussion around the selection of the site from two final alternatives by the Alexandria City School Board, a decision made on May 19 to select the so-called Option A-1, despite the fact that the resident-led Patrick Henry Advisory Group recommended Option C-1.
But residents who testified disagreed on the reported level of consensus over Option C-1, with some suggesting that there was not such consensus and others arguing it had been reached.
Resident Jim Durham said Option A-1 received broad support from the school community, but the group’s lack of a chair to oversee its meetings and minutes of proceedings brought conflicting opinions of what took place.
“The advisory group wasn’t set up to be as formal as it should have been,” he said.
There was sharp disagreement about the role of the advisory group and whether its feedback was taken into ac- count. Commissioners asked the majority of those who testified to speak to the community engagement process and their thoughts on its effectiveness.
“The school board threw out all of [the group’s] hard work,” said neighbor Angela Devico. “They threw out every concern of the surrounding community, they threw out the compromise, and in the process they’ve actually thrown out the trust of the community, and the trust of the entire city.”
“The whole notion that it was not open and was a closed process is not true,” said Patrick Henry PTA president Mark Huddle. “There was a lot of information going back and forth, and [it] was hard to keep up with, that’s true. They were going through iterations very rapidly at one point, which is true, and the design they were coming up with were from gradual changes and input they were receiving.”
Planning Commissioner Maria Wasowski said that while she understood the neighbors’ concerns about the advisory group’s role, it was only advisory and therefore could not make binding decisions on the school board’s behalf.
“The advisory groups are advisory, and come up with recommendations,” she said. “The advisory group does not make definitive decisions. … It’s disappointing, but it’s part of the process.”
Commission vice chairman Nathan Macek suggested refining the methodology of collaboration between the school board, Alexandria City Public Schools staff, neighbors and parents, and said a review of this process might be worthwhile to see where improvements can be made.
Macek added that given the capacity concerns at ACPS and the need for construction projects at various schools,
things must be done more expeditiously.
“This isn’t the last school we’re going to be building any time soon,” he said. “We need a lot more schools. We need to find a process that works, because frankly, this one took us five years. We can’t wait five years to approve the next school. We’ve got to be looking at these things as fast as city council can fund them, and as fast as the school board can make decisions about which schools and which projects.”
Under the plan, the current 86,000-square foot elementary school would be replaced by a 137,000-square foot pre-K-8 school that would accommodate 800 students. Patrick Henry currently houses nearly 600 students from pre-K through fifth grade.
Meanwhile, the existing 9,000-square foot recreation center would expand to 18,000 square feet under the proposal and feature a synthetic turf athletic field, a hard surface flex-court, three new playgrounds, and landscaped natural open space.
Patrick Henry principal Ingrid Bynum said that parents at the school had shown overwhelming support for Option A-1, and were surprised and upset when it appeared that opinion had been disregarded by the advisory group.
Bynum said that given the site plan’s emphasis on the safety of students both traveling to and from school and while inside the building, and the way it supports academics, the alternative will work well.
“The new Patrick Henry pre-K-8 School will be the best in the state of Virginia, but we cannot do that without putting the needs of my children first,” she said. “They deserve a beautiful school that provides them with safety and a great instructional program and environment.”
Local residents raised concerns about North Latham Street being used by school buses, delivery trucks and other vehicles as a driveway, arguing that it is residential in nature and ill suited to such traffic.
“The neighbors support the new school, but we’ve also worked hard to find solutions to ensure the quiet residential areas and our streets are not overwhelmed by this new school and recreation center that’s going to bring new traffic into our neighborhood,” said resident Elizabeth Parker.
Macek rejected those claims, while commissioner Stephen Koenig, who represented the commission on the advisory group, said the decision to route bus traffic on North Latham Street was well-evaluated and a “trade-off that we’re consciously making to get a more complete product.”
Local resident Danon Liercke, whose children currently attend Patrick Henry,said bus traffic causes problems every morning, and that this proposal will help solve them.
After the planning commission’s unanimous approval, city council will examine the plan at a public hearing Saturday.