School board chooses “forest” concept for Douglas MacArthur

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The forest concept design that the school board approved sits further back from Janneys Lane, offers a view of the nearby forest from the classrooms and feels more like a community hub, residents and community members said. (Rendering/ACPS)
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By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]

The school board unanimously approved one of two design concepts for the Douglas MacArthur Elementary School rebuild at its Feb. 6 meeting.

After narrowing down design options from three to two last month, the school board decided to move forward with a “forest” concept.

The approved concept includes a three-story building set back from Janneys Lane with multiple non-contiguous play areas and recreational fields visible from the road. The classrooms will have a view of the nearby forest, and the building will be ACPS’ first net-zero ready school, meaning it will be capable of producing as much energy as it consumes.

Mignon Anthony, chief operating officer of Alexandria City Public Schools, noted that the design is still in the concept phase. It provides a set direction for the structure and positioning of the building, but leaves room for adjustments to the interior layout and outdoor spaces.

“This is definitely a milestone for the work that we’re doing with Douglas MacArthur, but it is not, by far, the last thing that we’re going to talk about,” Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., said. “There’s a lot more that occurs with this schematic design after this process.”

The school board’s decision allows DLR Group, the architects on the project, to expand and fine-tune the design through June 2020 in preparation for demolition of the existing school building this summer.

The Y concept was another design option. It was ultimately not chosen for the Douglas MacArthur Elementary School project, but those who supported the design cited its more contiguous play spaces as compared to the forest concept. (Rendering/ACPS)

During the rebuild, MacArthur students will use the old Patrick Henry School building as a swing space, beginning in the fall. The school board’s April 2019 decision delayed demolition of the old Patrick Henry building, which will eventually be replaced by recreational fields and play areas. As a result, the project’s timeline has very little wiggle room.

The forest concept for the new MacArthur building has been a longtime favorite of community, PTA and design advisory group members.

“The feedback that you’ve heard, that largely the school is a community resource, that we want it to feel that way, that we want it to feel integrated with the community, is very important to us,” Lisa Porter, a board member on the Clover College Park Civic Association and member of the MacArthur Design Advisory Group, said.

Most residents supported the forest concept because it was set back from Janneys Lane and the tiered design fit more in line with the “feel of our community,” Porter said.

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Some community and PTA members expressed reservations about the concept’s separate play spaces – some are located behind the building while others are to its side, visible from the road. Over the next few weeks, the architects will work to refine the design of the outdoor spaces, Anthony said.

Board member Veronica Nolan stressed that a well-designed play area was important to parents and community members alike.

“The other thing to note is that the majority of people that chose [the] Y [concept], it was because of the play area not so much that they were choosing a building, one over the other,” Nolan said.

There was discussion last month about including affordable or workforce housing on the MacArthur site, but the idea was quickly taken off the table. Members of the community and the design advisory group said the city had provided little to no notice of this kind of co-location for a project that was already on a tight timeline.

Douglas MacArthur has been in need of a rebuild for years. According to ACPS, the school has leaky windows, water damage and some windowless classrooms. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

William Pfister, former president of the Douglas MacArthur PTA and a member of the Seminary Hill Association, thanked the city and ACPS for no longer considering co-located housing.

“We do recognize there is a need across the city, and we look forward to engaging in the joint facilities master plan and those efforts to increase the stakeholder engagement and knowledge across the city because it really is important,” Pfister said. “Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work here.”

While the city and ACPS will no longer be exploring co-located housing at Douglas MacArthur, they are exploring smaller co-location options, Anthony said. Staff and DLR are setting aside enough space in the design for a potential community meeting room or publicly accessible office space so that work on the building can begin and conversations around co-location can continue.

“DLR is going to figure it out so it doesn’t take away from the educational space, but we had already been asked to provide a family resource center, some place where families could go and that the principal could collect requirements for children that needed certain things like food pantry stuff,” Anthony said.

Several school board members, including Margaret Lorber, who serves as the board liaison on the design advisory group, were interested in how the building will align with the city’s green building policy.

The school will be designed so that a net-zero energy program can be implemented, making Douglas MacArthur Alexandria’s first net-zero ready school, Anthony said.

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

In response to Anthony’s comments about the building’s roof, board member Heather Thornton asked whether ACPS could build higher than three stories with the forest concept.

It is possible, Anthony said – the city has increased the height requirement for the site – but she questioned whether “just because we can, we should.” Increasing Douglas MacArthur from a single-story to a three-story building was already concerning to some neighbors.

“The city has opened up our height requirement, where we could go to four stories if we wanted to do that,” Anthony said. “Whether or not that’s complimentary to the neighborhood or not, that might be something that is going to be controversial.”

Anthony also said the elementary school, which is currently kindergarten through fifth grade, would not be expanding to eighth grade, despite some interest from the community.

“A K through 8 school would add quite a bit more children to the occupancy for this school,” Anthony said. “It seemed to take it to a level, already on a tight site, that was going to be a bigger challenge than we already were going to have.”

Instead, staff are looking at future modernization projects for potential K through 8 expansion, Anthony said.

Ultimately, Lorber made a motion, seconded by Meagan Alderton, to approve the forest concept; the board voted unanimously to adopt the motion.

The day after the vote, ACPS began the schematic design process for the school, which will continue through April. Staff will present updates to community groups, the advisory group and school teams through the process. ACPS will request a development special use permit from the city in March.

Staff plans to begin construction on the site around this same time in 2021, Anthony said.

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