By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
At Saturday’s public hearing, city council unanimously approved plans to use the old Patrick Henry School building as an interim swing space for Douglas MacArthur Elementary School students while their school is rebuilt.
Douglas MacArthur had been on the back burner for years as various schools in Alexandria City Public Schools system underwent renovations and rebuilds. Earlier this year, the school board decided to utilize the opportunity the Patrick Henry renovation project presented and move ahead with a rebuild for the deferred school.
ACPS and the city began working together about five years ago on a plan to transform Patrick Henry from a 650-student, pre-k through fifth grade school into a 900-student kindergarten through eighth grade school and recreation center.
The new Patrick Henry School and Recreation Center was built on the same property as the old school building. The new facility opened on Jan. 22 after 18 months of construction, during which students continued to attend classes at the old building.
While the old building was originally slated for demolition in March, the school board voted on April 4 to use the old building as a swing space during a Douglas MacArthur rebuild – just two weeks after informing the community.
(Read more: New Patrick Henry School opens its doors)
Using the old building as a swing space will allegedly save ACPS about $60 million, the price architects estimate it would cost to build or find another temporary space for Douglas MacArthur students during the rebuild.
The vote initially drew masses of frustrated Patrick Henry parents and residents who live near the school, several of them voicing concerns about traffic, equity, the timeframe of the decision and the resulting delayed opening of the athletic fields slated to be built on the location of the old building.
Since that preliminary school board vote, plans have solidified for the swing space. On Saturday, city staff gave council a presentation detailing parking, traffic and other mitigation measures that will go into effect during the interim period while the school acts as a swing space.
One of the major changes is the addition of a looped road through the Patrick Henry property that will circle the old building and facilitate student drop off and pick up. The looped road, which is intended to remove vehicle traffic on Taney Avenue, will begin at the northern entrance of the parking lot, have tiers of parking throughout and branch off into a smaller parking lot directly below the rec center, according to Carson Lucarelli, an urban planner with the Department of Planning and Zoning.
In addition, ACPS will construct almost a mile of new sidewalks, as well as speed tables and crosswalks.
To mitigate the masses of students and teachers who will now occupy the property, ACPS plans to stagger start and dismissal times for each school, Lucarelli said.
While disapproval of the plan has been circulating in the Patrick Henry community since the school board vote, council’s public hearing on the topic was relatively uncontroversial. Only three people signed up to speak during the public comment period, a major decrease from the 27 who spoke at the school board meeting in April.
(Read more: Patrick Henry swing space plan advances)
All three speakers urged council to approve ACPS’ development special use permit application and to do so without adding conditions or changes.
“We’re on a tight schedule with the project,” Lisa Porter, a board member of the Clover College Park Civic Association, said. “I think one of the most important points from our perspective is just to make sure that no conditions are added to the DSUP or the site plan that would unnecessarily delay the project.”
With council’s approval, Douglas MacArthur students will attend the swing space for up to two and a half years starting in September 2020 while their school is demolished and rebuilt.
Dana Chambers, co-chair of the Patrick Henry and Douglas MacArthur Collaborative Committee, told council that the committee has been helping find solutions to some of the challenges caused by dual occupancy.
“Many families and staff members from both schools have expressed reservations about the impact of this dual occupancy on student safety, accessibility of parking, impact on local traffic, inconveniences to working families and a potential impact on teacher retention,” Chambers said.
The committee has already helped increase off-street parking from 170 to 196 spaces, and is advocating for Douglas MacArthur parents to have their students ride the buses to school, rather than increasing traffic during drop off and pick up times, Chambers said.
During council’s deliberations, several councilors echoed the sentiment that while the swing space is not ideal, it’s a creative solution to a challenging problem.
“Maybe this isn’t plan A, but this plan B is pretty good,” Councilor Del Pepper said. “There were a lot of little snafus – parking, of course, was one and the bells and the lights and the scheduling – and all of that is less than perfect, but it works, and it’s a tribute really to everyone who was involved in all of this.”
Councilor Canek Aguirre expressed reservations about the conditions of outdoor play space for the Douglas MacArthur students, who will be using the old Patrick Henry playground.
“I just wanted to raise my displeasure with some of this,” Aguirre said. “I am going to support this project, but I just feel that kids need spaces where they can run, chase each other, be kids essentially, and I feel that that’s rather constrained in what we have, but unfortunately this is what we have to work with.”
On a motion by Pepper, seconded by Councilor Amy Jackson, council approved the swing space DSUP unanimously. The MacArthur rebuild is slated for completion in late 2022.
“For the longest time, we had public hearings and we had people coming to testify about the need for investment in MacArthur Elementary,” Mayor Justin Wilson said. “The fact that now we’re having a conversation about how we rebuild MacArthur I think is a testament to … some good decision making and budgeting up here as well as partnership with the school board to make this happen. This is an exciting step.”
(Read more: Patrick Henry gets an upgrade)