City backs West End office building purchase for school

City backs West End office building purchase for school

By James Cullum (Photo/James Cullum)

City Council unanimously approved a transfer of $4.56 million from the city general fund to Alexandria City Public Schools to allow the purchase of the office space at 1701 and 1705 N. Beauregard St. for a planned new West End elementary school Saturday, despite reservations over bussing, narrow sidewalks along a busy roadway and the tenancy of the top two floors of the six-story building.

“We’re all in this together to help our kids to do the best that they can. That’s the bottom line,” said Mayor Allison Silberberg. “I’m excited about this as an addition to the city school system, but I’m also cognizant and a little concerned, frankly, still. “But this is an ongoing process. I’m concerned about the fact that we didn’t have a contingency plan in case things don’t work out in regard to that road.”

Schools Superintendent Alvin Crawley said that ACPS has not yet secured permission from neighboring property owners to use the private streets surrounding the building and its neighboring parking garage.

The property sits at the corner of North Beauregard Street and Rayburn Avenue, and all school bus, parent and staff vehicular traffic would have to use private roadways. There are covenants governing the office space, which means that any change in use must be approved by neighboring property owners.

“Can you get your buses in and out without going on those roads?” City Councilor Paul Smedberg asked.

“I can’t answer that right now. Not to that level,” said Richard Jackson, director of educational facilities for ACPS, noting that the school system should be receiving word back from neighbors next week.

Crawley said that while ACPS’ approval for the private streets around the property is “still conditional,” the property will be able to accommodate between three and five school buses.

“We anticipate that a majority of the students will come from the neighborhood,” he said. “We anticipate there will probably be about five buses that will come in and out on a daily basis, so this is not a school that will have a lot of students coming into the school on buses.”

Smedberg said city and school staffs didn’t collaborate adequately in the lead-up to the property acquisition.

“This is being done outside the budget cycle. It is a new project, there were a lot of apparent delays and reprioritization of money to make this happen,” he said. “We do have to get beyond what’s happened in the past. It’s been unfortunate, but there are a lot of areas where we have to cooperate in a much more significant, responsible, responsive level, particularly with you, Dr. Crawley and [City Manager Mark] Jinks to set that example.

“I think we could have handled some of these issues much sooner than we did. They seem fairly straightforward, quite honestly. I don’t know what took so long to get to them. I hope we have learned a lot.”

Virginia state code dictates that students can occupy only the first four floors of a building, but 1701 N. Beauregard St. has six. The plan calls for an external elevator with indirect access to the building, in order to provide security to the school portion of the building. Likewise, students would be unable to access the top two floors.

City Councilor John Chapman said this offers an opportunity for a partnership with the city.

“Is that a way for the city to get first rights of refusal for those two floors?” Chapman asked. “I would definitely like to see us working more smoothly together.”

Crawley agreed.

“I would strongly encourage us to continue conversations about coordination of the top two floors,” he said. “As a school division, we are committed to working with the [city’s] staff. We have a lot of work to do together as a team.”

The city funds will “defray certain expenditures and liabilities of the city for fiscal year 2017,” according to the ordinance approved by council. Schools officials estimate that the $15 million building will cost $23.2 million to renovate and retrofit, bringing to total project cost to $38.2 million.

ACPS wants to open the school by September 2018.

“Our goal is to hopefully acquire this property by next month, and then we can move forward with the retrofitting work that needs to happen,” Crawley said.