Douglas MacArthur modernization process begins

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Photo/Cody Mello-Klein
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By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]

Plans are solidifying for the Douglas MacArthur Elementary School modernization project, which will involve demolishing the existing building and constructing a new one from scratch.

The modernization process began in earnest at a community meeting on Oct. 30. The meeting, led by members of DLR Group, the architecture firm selected by Alexandria City Public Schools to oversee the design process for the project, was the first of many in a process that is set to take about three years.

The rebuild itself is slated to take place from late 2020 to late 2022. During construction, Douglas MacArthur students will take classes in the old Patrick Henry Elementary School building, originally slated for demolition in March, due to a lack of space on the current Douglas MacArthur site. The school board approved the Patrick Henry swing space in April.

The decision remains controversial. Many Patrick Henry parents claim ACPS is using a predominantly economically disadvantaged school as a swing space for a mostly white, minority economically disadvantaged school. The decision is also projected to delay the opening of new athletic fields at Patrick Henry until fall 2023.

Members of the Patrick Henry community and those opposed to the swing space plan gathered on April 1 to hold a rally before a community meeting with Alexandria City Public Schools staff. (Photo credit: Joel Finkelstein)

After the school system experienced a massive influx of students in 2012, ACPS staff started working on its long-range educational facilities plan to identify schools most in need of improved capacity or facilities. Douglas MacArthur was deemed in need of both.

“Douglas MacArthur rose to the top and I think for the past five years in our capital budget we’ve continued to try to have a modernization, which for Douglas MacArthur is a complete rebuild,” ACPS senior planner Erika Gulick said.

The school was built in 1943 to educate the children of D.C. government employees and Torpedo Factory employees, who were contributing to America’s efforts in World War II.

After 77 years, the building is showing its age. Originally designed for a capacity of 550 students, it’s been stretched to accommodate 700 students, and the building itself has been a patch job ever since a renovation in the 1960s.

Water intrusion has been a constant issue, with leaky windows, water-damaged exterior walls and bulging ceiling panels. Part of the outdoor play space regularly floods, Helen Lloyd, ACPS director of communications, said, which resulted in parents navigating through mud for their children’s graduation last year. The school’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system has also been in need of replacement for years.

“Because of the capacity needs, we’ve added a wall there or changed things, and now the HVAC is working harder to try and meet the demand of the new school or the way it’s arranged,” Gulick said. “So, it’s really failing. Sometimes you can replace the unit. Some of those units we can’t replace; they’re actually outdated. So, we’re kind of, in that school, planning for failure almost, planning knowing the systems are going to fail.”

“The cafeteria is also undersized, so they have to start lunch very early to roll through to make sure that every child gets lunch,” Lloyd said.

Lunch at Douglas MacArthur starts at 10 a.m. and runs until after 1 p.m. in order to feed every student. On top of that, Douglas MacArthur has eight windowless classrooms, a gym that is too small for its student body and an outdated play space.

(Read more: Patrick Henry swing space plan advances)

ACPS decided a complete rebuild was necessary, with an estimated opening scheduled for 2025. The timeline was moved to 2023 after the school board’s decision to use Patrick Henry as a swing space. The rebuild will increase capacity at Douglas MacArthur to 825 students.

ACPS brought on DLR Group based on its experience designing schools and working within the strict timeframe of a swing space project in Washington D.C. public schools. The decision was also based on the firm’s strong community engagement process, Gulick said.

“Building a new elementary school is a once in a lifetime opportunity for a community and a school system, so it’s really important that we have good stakeholder engagement, that we have a chance to hear what people are looking for so we can make sure our design is responsive to community needs,” Sarah Woodhead, DLR Group architect, said.

The current Douglas MacArthur Elementary School building has eight windowless classrooms, in addition to problems with water intrusion and its HVAC system. (Photo Cody Mello-Klein)

DLR Group’s Oct. 30 meeting was the first in a series of four community engagement sessions.

“What I will say that came out of it is obviously the strong desire for a community-focused school with open space that serves the community and safety, traffic safety, bus safety, drop off safety and a school that potentially takes traffic off Janney’s Lane,” Lloyd said.

Through a series of exercises at the meeting, community members said they want the new school to include open space for the community, use the environment, including the woods behind the school, and be an adaptable, sustainable space.

Community members expressed concern about traffic in front of the school, parking availability, ensuring space for growth and increased capacity in the future and creating safe space for children.

Apart from a climbing wall in the gym, community members expressed little desire to keep much from the old building.

“It was more about the spirit of the place than the bricks and mortar,” Woodhead said.

Community members, ACPS staff, teachers and an advisory group composed of civic associations, school board members Margaret Lorber and Councilor Amy Jackson will provide feedback throughout the process, Lloyd said.

The project is only in the pre-design and concept development phase, but Gulick said the timeline is critical, especially due to the swing space component.

“We made it very clear that timeline is probably the most critical factor in this project, so [DLR Group] are very aware of that and very confident in the timeline to be able to deliver and have proven experience delivering,” Gulick said.

The Douglas MacArthur Elementary School modernization project is scheduled for completion in 2023. (Graphic/ACPS)

Demolition of the existing Douglas MacArthur building is scheduled for late summer or early fall 2020. Douglas MacArthur students will begin the 2020-2021 school year at Patrick Henry.

Throughout the next year, ACPS will also be working on the permitting process, as DLR Group works through an iterative design process with stakeholders. ACPS estimates the development special use permit for the project will go before city council in September 2020. The Patrick Henry swing space DSUP is scheduled to go before council at a public hearing on Nov. 16.

ACPS is already looking for ways to maximize efficiency during a process that has many moving parts. A construction manager will be hired in the next few weeks to inform DLR Group throughout the design process, and ACPS plans to begin a phased construction approval process next year, Gulick said.

To pay tribute to the old building, ACPS staff is collecting stories, photos of alumni – including all four children of former President Gerald Ford – and current students and planning a mural that will honor Douglas MacArthur’s past.

“It’s an emotional moment to close a school and then to see it demolished, and we mustn’t forget that,” Lloyd said. “We have to acknowledge before we move forward and move on.”

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