By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Despite attending classes in a relatively new, modern building, athletes at T.C. Williams High School have long dealt with the scheduling constraints, amenity deficiencies and embarrassing regional reputation that come with an outdated stadium. With a design concept in place and budget money set aside, Alexandria City Public Schools is ready to move forward with modernizing Parker-Gray Stadium.
That full-steam-ahead desire to renovate, however, has run into an equally determined wall of resistance in the form of a brigade of spirited neighbors and the binds of an old promise.
The promise dates back more than 50 years to when T.C. Williams High School was first built, said Lars Liebeler, one of the attorneys retained by homeowners living next to the school’s property.
T.C. Williams was built in 1965 on the land of one of two black neighborhoods in the city. At the same time, homes were built in the adjacent neighborhood that includes Woods Place, Woods Avenue and Quaker Lane for the displaced black homeowners, Liebeler said.
In 1965, the school agreed to not light the football field beside these new homes, in recognition of the “undue burden this community has suffered to make way for T.C. Williams High School,” Liebeler said in a letter to the school board.
Beyond this initial agreement, Liebeler said ACPS renewed the promise in 2004 when renovation began on the high school and again in 2012 when they built tennis courts with lights on the King Street side of the school property.
Despite this half-century-long agreement, which has been recorded both verbally and in writing, ACPS plans to move forward with the modernization project, fostering a debate among the school division, the neighbors, students, sports organizations and other community stakeholders.
“I think there’s a significant difference in the places where people build houses or move in at a much later point in time knowing the school is there,” Liebeler said. “There’s a different situation when people were there first, and there was a promise made to them that there wouldn’t be lights.”
ACPS Chief Operating Officer Mignon Anthony and School Board Chair Ramee Gentry said they had heard about the need to upgrade Parker-Gray Stadium for years. They began the community engagement aspect of the project in February 2017 and completed the concept design submission process with the City of Alexandria in late 2017.
Anthony said the project came about in an effort to modernize the stadium and bring it up to the use and capability standards of other high schools in the region.
“We’re noticeably deficient compared to really all of our neighbors in terms of the stadium,” Gentry said.
Amenity wise, the stadium has no bathrooms, worn out turf, a condemned press box and a track that falls short of regulation standards, said Don Simpson Jr., a member of the city’s Youth Sports Advisory Board. In addition, he said various high school teams face the scheduling constraints of holding practices and games during daylight hours.
“We’re the only school that has to play our football games on Saturday instead of Friday nights, and then of course we have to play soccer games earlier,” he said. “That’s not a positive when you’re scheduling against all the other Fairfax County schools.”
A member of the family that was honored with the naming of Eugene Simpson Stadium Park, Simpson said he’s a longtime advocate for the city’s sports programs and facilities.
“They’ve got to move forward with the stadium modernization,” he said. “The only contentious part about it is if they include the lights or not, and I just think if they’re going to spend the time and money and effort, to upgrade it without lights seems silly.”
Despite the necessity of modernizing the field, the project’s opponents think ACPS should keep its obligation to the Woods neighborhood. The Seminary Civic Association and several individual homeowners have sought legal representation, adding up to more than 50 neighbors who are opposed to the project, Liebeler said.
When T.C. Williams High School was modernized from 2004 to 2007, a condition was included in the project’s development special use permit that reiterates the agreement that was first established in the 60s. Condition 85 in DSUP 2002-0044 reads: “No permanent stadium lighting shall be installed at the School stadium or on any other athletic fields, including the proposed new practice field.”
The Department of Planning and Zoning notes in its comments on the stadium modernization project’s Concept II plans that the addition of stadium lighting would require an amendment to remove Condition 85 from DSUP 2002-0044.
“The DSUP is simply the zoning process that they need to go through,” Liebeler said, “But what it does is it reflects the agreement between the parties. There’s an independent legal obligation we believe the school has, but more than that, they have a moral obligation.”
William Goff, a neighbor whose home on Bishop Lane borders the stadium, said the modernization project’s negative impacts include disturbance from lights, noise and frequency of use, along with the devaluation of his and his neighbors’ properties.
“They can change the DSUP, but it can’t include intensification of what it was used for. It can’t be harmful to the neighborhood. They’re dancing on the rope here,” Goff said. “For example, if you want to build a playground, it’s not a big deal, but if you want to have a stadium with lights and games played from 8 in the morning to 10 at night, one would argue that that’s harmful for the neighborhood.”
Goff said putting stadium lights in this neighborhood would be especially offensive because it is a noncommercial, relatively dark part of the city.
“The problem is that when you put lights there, any type of lights, and you have a pitch-black background, it’s going to magnify the intensity of the glare,” Goff said. “It’s called a contrast ratio. When you have that particular situation, it just lights up everything.”
Because T.C. Williams is located in a residential area, several of the project’s challengers have suggested they move the field to a different location.
“The original stadium where the Titans played was behind GW [Middle School]. Most people don’t know that it sat 15,000 people,” Roy Shannon, another lawyer retained by homeowners in the Woods neighborhood, said.
“It was a huge stadium,” he said, “and quite honestly, that’s probably the best place for a stadium today to exist, because it’s right next to a metro station, and after the games, people could go to the Del Ray restaurants. … That area’s commercial anyways.”
Anthony said at this time ACPS is not considering putting the field somewhere else.
“That would be a really difficult thing to think about, separating a major component of the high school program and its athletics and the history associated with it,” she said.
Shannon questioned why ACPS would prioritize this modernization when it has a limited budget, a student capacity crisis and facilities in greater need of modernizations.
Gentry said anytime the school board prioritizes a project, it has to balance necessity and available funding.
“Anytime we’re doing prioritization, you could have two projects, and one might have in some ways a higher urgency, but if it requires more funding than is available in the current year, well then you can’t do it,” Gentry said.
The modernization is projected to cost just over $5 million.
While ACPS is set in its intent to prioritize this project and keep the field where it is located, Gentry and Anthony said the school has made compromises while holding six community engagement meetings over the past year to keep stakeholders involved and informed.
“The school division is trying to be a good neighbor. We’re not trying to circumvent the neighborhood or the process or anything like that. We recognize we are a school, we have residents that are next to us,” Anthony said. “That’s why we provide their input. We take it into close consideration.”
In addition to the larger community engagement meetings, which are held primarily to convey new information, ACPS has met with stakeholders in smaller groups to hear and address concerns.
“I’ve been to numerous meetings, and they’ve listened to the neighborhood,” Simpson said. “They’ve done a lot of design revisions, relocating bathrooms, relocating the score board to the other side of the field, relocating the press box to the other side of the field with the sound system. They brought in lighting consultants and sound consultants.
“I think for a high school field, they’ve done everything they can do to make sure it has a minimal impact on the adjacent neighborhood,” he said.
Goff argued that school board members had not been responsive enough to questions at meetings.
Following the community engagement portion of the process, ACPS’s next step is to apply for a DSUP. They plan to make their DSUP submission over the summer to get on the September public hearing schedules for the planning commission and city council, according to ACPS Communications Specialist Carolyn Semedo-Strauss.
The outcome of the hearings, as well as comments from the DSUP process, will dictate the remainder of the process. ACPS’s goal is to commence construction on the stadium in late spring or early summer of 2019, Semedo-Strauss said.
Despite Shannon and Liebeler’s optimism that a compromise can be reached, ACPS’s projected timeline suggests the issue will most likely boil down to a city council decision about whether the school system should abide by the agreement it has with the Woods neighborhood.
“We’ve been going over this for some time now,” Goff said. “At some point in time, it’s going to get moving in one way or the other. It’ll be settled, but it sets a bad precedent when you have a city government that says yes this is the way the law will be and then just for some reason they decided no let’s change it. You really can’t do that.”