City considers adding affordable housing to Douglas MacArthur

(Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]

Members of the MacArthur Advisory Committee and the community were left scrambling last week after the city indicated it would be exploring affordable housing on the Douglas MacArthur Elementary School site.

The announcement that the city would not only be exploring co-location options, but also providing funding to Alexandria City Public Schools for an architectural exploration of potential housing options, surprised members of the advisory committee.

“We were all blindsided, as a team, as a council member,” Amy Jackson, the city council representative on the advisory committee, said.

This is the latest bump in the road for a project that has already had a fairly uneven ride.

Due to a lack of space on the Douglas MacArthur site, Douglas MacArthur students will take classes in the old Patrick Henry K-8 School building during construction.

The school board’s April 2019 decision to use Patrick Henry as a swing space drew widespread criticism from Patrick Henry parents. Although the swing space plan advanced the Douglas MacArthur rebuild timeline, it delayed the opening of athletic fields at Patrick Henry until fall 2023.

The school board will vote to narrow options from three concepts – a y-shaped concept, a coil-shaped concept (pictured here) or a “forest” concept – to two concepts on Thursday. (Image/ACPS)

Parents also argued that ACPS was deferring the needs of economically disadvantaged students in favor of more economically stable students.

DLR Group, the architecture firm behind the project, presented three designs for MacArthur during a public community meeting for the rebuild on Jan. 15. The school board is scheduled to narrow those options to two during a school board meeting today and vote on a final design on Feb. 6. Due to the swing space component, a strict timeline is in place for the project.

The sudden news at the meeting that the city and ACPS would be exploring co-location options surprised and frustrated advisory committee members, Jackson said.

“I’m all for exploration, but I’m also all for communication and information and getting the word out to our public and our community so that they can have some input into what we’re about to do and why we’re doing it,” Jackson said.

What had only previously been thought of as a vague concept suddenly seemed like a real option. However, co-location on the site is still very much in the exploratory phase, City Manager Mark Jinks said.

“There is a housing availability and pricing crisis in the region, including the city, and basically [we’re] thinking outside the box of what has traditionally been the city’s plans for use of public property, how affordable housing gets done,” Jinks said. “… This is one of those areas to look at. It’s not just the MacArthur site; it’ll be other city sites, other school sites.”

When the city and schools came together to form the Joint City Facilities Investment Task Force in 2017, it was established that exploring potential co-location uses on any new city or ACPS development was a necessary part of the process.

For the MacArthur rebuild, Director of the Department of Planning and Zoning Karl Moritz presented the concept of co-location to the advisory committee in December, Jinks said. Since fall 2019, the city and schools have made a more active push to explore co-location options.

A draft presentation regarding a feasibility study for the George Mason Elementary School rebuild made its way into the public eye on Monday, indicating that ACPS is also exploring the potential for co-located affordable housing, among other designs, on that site.

One potential site plan for George Mason, which would eliminate the need for swing space, suggests pushing the school building further from Cameron Mills Road and investigating the feasibility of a four-story housing structure.

“Land is extremely scarce in the city. Available land is very expensive, and so getting the most use out of it to benefit the most people in the community is basically a shared goal between the city and schools,” Jinks said.

(Read more: Douglas MacArthur modernization process begins)

For the advisory committee members, it’s not the concept itself but rather the process by which the concept has been brought to their attention – and the public’s attention – that remains a sticking point.

Between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 15 – before the formal community meeting – community members had the opportunity to look at the three designs for the new school. A little after 5:30 p.m., advisory committee members received an email from ACPS Chief Operating Officer Mignon Anthony explaining that co-location would be a topic of serious conversation at the meeting to follow.

Jinks sent an email as well, expressing similar sentiments, that the city needs to explore co-location with every new development. In another memo to the advisory committee and members of council, Jinks indicated that this step hadn’t been taken to its fullest extent.

“Yesterday, I received my regular development briefing from City staff, and became concerned that housing options at MacArthur had been yet fully explored and had not made enough progress,” Jinks wrote. “Conversations were then held with ACPS staff. The result is that the City will immediately provide funds for architectural services to ACPS to further explore housing options.”

The architectural evaluation is meant to evaluate whether affordable or work- force housing is possible on the site. Space and timeline constraints remain challenges, Jinks said.

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

“I have no preconceived notion, neither does the staff, how the review of any of these school sites is going to come out in regard to housing or any of the other functions,” Jinks said. “Housing is probably the most challenging. The MacArthur site is a small site, but the review of every school and city site needs to be a part of our regular planning process.”

In light of ACPS and the city’s ongoing issues with retaining and recruiting employees, Jinks said there will be a focus on exploring potential workforce housing for ACPS employees at the Douglas MacArthur site. Any co-location options would not disrupt the project timeline, Jinks said.

The sudden inclusion of the co-location discussion has raised additional concerns. Jackson and other members of the advisory committee requested firm answers on who the housing is for and how safety protocol could be established if non-school affiliated adults are on site.

Jackson acknowledged that the city needs to find creative solutions for affordable housing and that it is worth exploring potential co-location options, like the one at Douglas MacArthur.

“I am a firm believer in the exploration part of this,” Jackson said.“However, that being said, it also has to involve the deliberate cause and effect of ‘What will happen if …?’ Like, who is going to be housed there then?”

The background check process for affordable housing is comprehensive, the Office of Housing clarified. If the housing was for ACPS employees, those living on-site would already be cleared by the school system.

While members of the advisory committee and community scramble to find out more information ahead of the school board’s vote on Feb. 6, Jackson has broader concerns on her mind.

“If [the community wasn’t] always suspicious before and taking everything the city said and the schools [said] with a grain of salt, now this is what’s happening,” Jackson said. “Everything we do, if it wasn’t questioned before, it will be questioned now.”

(Read more: Appeal of Alexandria Presbyterian Church expansion heads to council)