Showdown looms over T.C. Williams stadium lights

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Parker-Gray Stadium at T.C. Williams High School has no lights, no bathrooms, worn out turf, a track that doesn't meet regulations and an outdated press box, score board and concession stand. (Photo: Missy Schrott)
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By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

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long dealt with the scheduling constraints, amenity deficiencies and embarrassing regional reputation that come with an outdated stadium.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.

The proposed site plan includes new concessions, a new press box and new restrooms and storage, and adds an eighth lane to the track. (Rendering Courtesy of Hord Caplan Macht)

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.

The condemned press box at Parker-Gray Stadium is one of the reasons cited for a stadium modernization. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

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.”

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40 COMMENTS

  1. Your article suggests TC Williams is the only high school in the area without lights on its football field and the only school that has to play football games on Saturday. Not true. There are three other high schools in Alexandria within a 2 mile radius of TC Williams. None of those schools have lights either and all play their football games generally on Saturdays. Unlike high schools further out in Fairfax County, all four high schools in Alexandria are located in residential neighborhoods. Lights would have a significant negative impact on the surrounding neighborhoods of all four schools.

    • Oh well, they’re just gonna have to get over it. That’s what happens when you live near a high school. TC is known for Remember the Titans. How is our school gonna be recognized for football but the field isn’t even updated? We can’t even have Friday night lights. It’s an experience for the kids and anyone who has a problem can invest in some blinds and earplugs and call it a night if it’s that serious.

    • Not true. The overwhelming majority of our neighboring High Schools have the same setup. Residential areas co-located with Stadiums with lights. Many in closer proximity than TCW and it’s neighbors. The residents embrace the atmosphere.

      • “Many in closer proximity than TCW and its neighbors.” Nope. My kids matriculated through TCW playing football, basketball, soccer, and running track.

        There is not one single solitary school in this area with a concession stand 20 feet from the backyard of a residence which is only 30 or so more feet from the back door. The equipment room is 7 feet from the nearest backyard. The field a Wakefield is sunken (lights lower than the homes), adjacent to the school and nowhere near as close to the residences. The fields at Washington and Lee is across the street from a set of homes. The fields at Yorktown are sunken with the lights below the houses. Your making arguments that contradict facts conceded by the planners.

        • Ever been to Lake Braddock? West Potomac? PLENTY of other schools in the area have fields that back right up against neighbor’s back yards. Honestly, if you’re going to try and argue TC is in a “noncommerical” area, those are much better comparisons than W&L, Wakefield, and Yorktown.

          And frankly, a cursory street level view of Yorktown using Google Maps contradicts your assertion that the lights are below the houses. Yes, the field is sunken, but the lights very clearly are higher than the roof of the house who’s backyard borders the endzone.

  2. KRD is correct. Noise is also a big issue. Living two streets away from the stadium, I can tell you that we hear every gunshot from the starter pistol, the announcements to buy hot dogs and the cheers for every score. During the day, this is fine but not at 9:30 at night.
    The other concern is that this won’t just be for a few football games. Parks and Rec will have access to the field and lights throughout the year.

    Please respect the agreement made with this community and follow the other schools in the small City of Alexandria.

    • How do kids and families near other schools, stadiums, or even Wal-Mart – survive? Take a look at every school in our district. They don’t have this issue. They manage like the rest of America with HS Stadiums, their bands, PA Systems, Cheers and Lights. I enjoy hearing the sounds of fun and energy. If I get tired of it, I will move to the countryside, dig a pond and sit on my front porch and gaze at it and look forward to a breeze to deliver some ripples. Relax, – evening activities for kids and communities are a great thing. BTW, I like the fireworks on the river too!

  3. This article is very one-sided and reads like a propaganda piece from William Goff’s Lawyer. TCWilliams is the only local *public* high school without stadium lights in the NOVA region, which renders the stadium useless after dusk and leaves only a few hours of time after school for sports and activities. With almost 4,000 students attending the school, we need more availability of the field for practices and events. These activities include track and field, soccer, lacrosse, marching band, Junior ROTC, and football, and they build community, character, leadership and accomplishment among our city’s youth. I’m tired of hearing Mr. Goff and his friends disparage the young people in Alexandria as being troublemakers and slackers. Our children deserve respect, and appropriate educational and recreational facilities in the city of Alexandria. TCWilliams is filled with tomorrow’s leaders, and rational compromises can be made to meet the needs of our students AND to be respectful of the neighborhood. I’m tired of Mr Goff and his friends stonewalling the discussions about how we can and should move forward.

    And, for the record, his neighborhood is not “pitch black”—he lives about a quarter of a mile from the Fairlington commercial center. Bradlee Shopping Center is also less than half a mile. The entire DC metro area has bright skies from urban light pollution, and the extremely high-tech, directional LED lighting that ACPS is committed to using for the field will not bother his house one little bit. Enough of his grandiose speculation and lies.

  4. This article is very one-sided and reads like a propaganda piece from William Goff’s Lawyer. TCWilliams is the only local *public* high school without stadium lights in the NOVA region, which renders the stadium useless once after dusk and leaves only a few hours after school for the sports and activities of almost 4,000 students who attend the school. I’m tired of hearing Mr. Goff and his friends disparage the young people in our city as being troublemakers and slackers. Our children deserve respect, and appropriate educational and recreational facilities in the city of Alexandria. TCWilliams is bursting at the seams, and rational compromises can be made to meet the needs of our city’s future leaders AND be respectful of the neighborhood. Im tired of Mr Goff and his friends stonewalling the discussions. And for the record, his neighborhood is not “pitch black”—it’s less than

  5. I used to live near Thomas Jefferson–a predominantly residential area, much like TC Williams. TJ has lights and they have evening and weekend activities. It’s really not disruptive. It’s fine.

    This refusal to permit TC Williams to have lights is a little NIMBY-esque.

  6. I find it repulsive that they are invoking the original agreement made after displacing a historically black neighborhood in order to protect their property values. Those black families have long since been displaced (again) through gentrification, though if they are still in the city of Alexandria, their descendants are disproportionately more likely to be educated at TC. Using that agreement, which they were not the original parties to, as the basis to disadvantage the public high school is morally contemptible. It’s about protecting their multi-million dollar property values, that’s all. Have any of those who’ve raised concerns had a child at TC?

    • The families on Woods Place and Avenue are African American families who lived there when other African American properties on the site were seized. The people you despise live on Bishop Lane, a diverse community. You would be well served to do some research before throwing false rhetorical flames.

  7. The personal attacks leveled in some of these comments are both disappointing and misplaced. I have never heard Mr. Goff or others who seek to hold the City and ACPS to the longstanding rule against permanent lights at TC disparage Alexandria’s young people as “troublemakers or slackers” or in any other way. Barb B owes an apology.

    HM may also wish to check his or her assumed facts. I live near TC’s stadium, I object to the lighting proposal, and in fact my children — as well as children of others in our neighborhood—attended TC. Additionally, the “original agreement” referred to was reaffirmed in subsequent DSUPs, including when the new TC was constructed. The prohibition was in place and well known when we purchased our home over 30 years ago. Finally, contrary to HM’s assumption, our African American neighbors have not been displaced and generally share significant concerns with the lighting proposal. They have made that quite clear to anyone willing to listen.

    • I will absolutely not apologize, because i have heard Mr Goff and his wife and friends disparage TCWilliams students publicly at meetings and to each other on many occasions. In the very first community meeting, Mr Goff flapped his arms and paraded around the room hollering “your precious kids are drinking, doing drugs and having sex because I’ve found beer cans and condoms” (quoted from memory, unfortunately, because this meeting video was not posted online). I’ve heard them complain that stadium lights will bring more naughty students loitering in their neighborhood and that the students skip school and smoke marajuana. There have been so many generalizations and insults hurled against TCWilliams students as a whole, when the vast majority of kids at the school are well-behaved, motivated, wonderful kids. At one meeting, a former TCW teacher even stood up to defend our students from the Goff’s attacks.

      There are always going to be a few students who do not follow the rules. I believe the new principal at the TCW is working hard to address school skipping and keep kids in the building. The activities at the stadium give students a place to engage in positive activities, sports teams, and extra-curriculars that help to keep them out of trouble.

      I understand that the long-time residents of the Woods neighborhood have legitimate concerns about the way the city has treated their properties and their families. I think the school system must address this with the Woods residents to come to an agreement about what is best for their community and TCW students. But the Goff’s have only owned their house on Bishops Lane for a little over 10 years (according to public tax records), and can not claim to be part of the original agreement about lights at the stadium. I personally think the Goff’s have been whipping everyone into a frenzy about this for years, and they are destroying any chance for our community to have an open and constructive conversation about the history of the Woods neighborhood and the needs of our public school students.

      • Please stop the personal attacks on the Goffs. They have been very upfront and transparent about this issue, publishing numerous letters and speaking in different public fora. They have never engaged in personal attacks on anyone, let alone the students. You can look it up. You are entitled to your position but not wrongheaded personal insults. Making it personal tells us your position is not very good,

        • The Goffs threw out plenty of dog whistles. “Gangs”, “MS-13”, etc. He knew what he was doing. Barb B. was correct, and I was at the meeting where an elderly former teacher or community leader can’t remember which, shut down those antics and brought the conversation back to a dignified level.

  8. Article says “outdated press-box”. Actually, it has been condemned for 3 yrs. Normal facilities and life cycle management should prevent “condemned” facilities at our High School. However, if we slip and mismanage, you would think it would become a priority. Been 3yrs and no sign of a fix. C’mon man!

  9. My biggest issues with this proposal of lights is this:
    A promise was made and now they want to break it.
    The land used to build the school was taken from the only land owning African Americans in this city. This was a practice also used to acquire Ft. Ward. Basic method is to take the land of land owning black people, pave over their ancestors graves and create a park. Then let’s take it an extra step and displace more of them and build a school. A school that their children won’t be allowed to attend (the original intent – because Superintendent TC Williams was a raging racist).
    Let’s take it another step and build a concession stand behind the house of the woman whose land we use for the football field. Let’s add further insult to her descendants and add bathrooms and upgrade the concession stand and lights.
    This city and this school has been nothing but racist and disrespectful to the community of land owning black people since before 1870’s and it must stop.

    People were willing to have lights for the students, but this wasn’t enough so the intent all along was never for the students, they’re being used as props for other activities and organizations to use. If TC gets lights, it will not stop there.

    If TC Williams HS truly wanted to be good neighbors there would be options to have a city stadium for the entire city to use as this is the actual intent. A place more suitable would have been researched and proposed.

  10. I Don’t think this is something everyone should vote on . This is a HIGH SCHOOL this should be up to the students who use the field and play sports . Why would you move next to a high school if you didn’t want to go through these problems? It’s not fair

    • The problem with that solution is, some of us were fine with having lights for the students at TC, but that’s not what Alexandria parks and rec wants. The intent is for the entire city to use. So that would mean maximum usage 7 days a week. Additionally, these students will be at TC for 3 years. I will be here until the end of my days and will pass down this home to my descendants as it was passed down to me.

  11. The claim that there is was an agreement between the City of Alexandria and the neighborhood is a myth. There may have been assurances between some individual politicians and some members of the public, however, for there to have been a binding agreement, elected officials would have had to bring the matter up at an official meeting of the City Council or of the School Committee, they would have had to take public comment on the matter, and then there would have had to have been a vote recorded in the minutes. None of that was done, so there never was an agreement between the city and the neighborhood. Any talk between some politician at the time and individuals who lived nearby (who were in no way even official representatives of the area) was simply that: talk, and has no legal, nor even moral authority.

  12. pfilios – I would refer you to the opinion piece written by this publication. While it may be legal for the school to go back on a promise that has been intact for more than 50 years, that does not mean it is right. Tell the people that live on Woods Ave and Bishop Lane that this promise was just a myth – I think they will disagree. As to your comment on moral authority – do your research on how the people living in the Woods neighborhood have been treated by the City of Alexandria and TC Williams and then talk to me about morals. Sometimes you have to see past what is legal and get to what is RIGHT. It is right to be a good neighbor and however hard you and others try to convince yourself that TC Williams has treated its neighbors with respect and dignity its just not true and finally they are taking a stand – and I and many other in Alexandria plan to stand with them. This, you can count on!

  13. Andrea and TSM are right. It is time for TC Williams to stop bullying their neighbors. It’s bad enough that TC Williams, the man, was a segregationist and took the land in the first place. Treat them with respect and as the motto goes “Fulfill the Promise”
    I too, will stand with the Woods neighborhood.
    Alexandria is a wonderful city. Lets do what is right!

  14. TSM: If I promise my friend that you will pay her $100 do you have a moral obligation to pay her? Unless you gave me some kind of authority to do so (a power of attorney) the answer is no. If whoever is supposed to have made the “promise” didn’t have the City Council or School Board vote on it after taking public comment they didn’t do it with any authority. They were not functioning as the representatives of the citizens of the City of Alexandria and therefore there is not only no legal promise, there is no moral one. When the land was dedicated to build TC Williams H.S. 50 years ago could they have made a better choice? I don’t know. The question now is will the citizens of the City of Alexandria be best served by installing lights at TC. My answer is yes. Great value for the students at TC, and after careful study and design small impact on the neighbors (who are largely not the same people who lived there 50 years ago anyways).

    • When the city put the promise in writing in 2004 and repeated it again in 2014, there was no dispute that the promise was made and kept in 1965 and continued since then. Because advocates for lights keep questioning the original commitment, I reviewed the TC Williams DSUP in 2004 and 2012. There was never any question about the original promise — city, schools, and community verified it. Not that it really matters that much anymore since it is in writing twice, but it is true. Also, don’t make assumptions about who lives behind the school. A lot of the original families still live in those homes. That is no ordinary neighborhood.

    • I’m a descendant of one of the original land owners, my family has been in this city since before the 1870’s. I’m proud of the fact that they owned land (wherever they could – restrictive covenants) and tried to hold on to that land. This city has ripped it away from them not once but twice. Now they want to further devalue what’s left. I’m going to stand up to these bullies and that includes you it seems.

  15. While I appreciate respectful and constructive dialogue, name-calling and bullying should not be tolerated. I agree that these promises made to the community should be kept. There’s an alternative: build a lighted field somewhere else that residents across Alexandria can enjoy while standing true to the promises made to the Woods community. No lights at T.C. Williams.