City Council approves Old Town private school, as residents cite safety concerns

City Council approves Old Town private school, as residents cite safety concerns
Photo/City of Alexandria 424 N. Washington St.

By Cody Mello-Klein |

A new private elementary school will be coming to North Washington Street in Old Town after City Council approved a special use permit for the project during Saturday’s public hearing.

The Potomac Crescent Waldorf School will move from its temporary location at 212 S. Washington St. to 424 N. Washington St. The school’s new site will provide space for its 55 kindergarten through fifth grade students, as well as a day care center. The plan includes designs for a playground in the back of the building, which will replace what is currently a private parking lot.

Since receiving Planning Commission approval on April 7, the project has been criticized by nearby residents, primarily the school’s pick-up and drop-off plan.

According to Ann Horowitz, principal planner with the Department of Planning and Zoning, five spaces in a loading zone on the west side of North Washington Street in front of the site would become the pick-up and drop-off location for the school. Parents or caregivers would have designated times when they would pick up or drop off their children and school staff would escort children to and from school. Staff will advise children to leave their vehicles from the sidewalk-facing side.

If a parent or caregiver misses their time slot, they would go to the Colonial Parking Garage a few blocks north of the school on Wythe Street, where there are three designated parking spaces. Parents and caregivers would then walk their children from the garage to the school. Any parent or caregiver arriving later than 3:15 p.m., the end of the drop-off period, would also park at the garage.

Neighbors claimed the plan presents a safety hazard for students who will be picked up and dropped off along a busy street.

“If you’ve been down Washington [Street], regardless of the posted speed limit, the speeds frequently during the day are between 30 and 40 miles per hour,” Rob Bloom, who lives in a neighboring house at 419 N. Columbus St., said. “When the light turns yellow, it is not a reflection of being cautious about going through the light. It means go through the light before it turns red.”

According to city staff, since 2018 there have been about 20 crashes at the intersection of North Washington and Oronoco streets near the school site. Seven crashes involved injuries, and the only crash involving a pedestrian resulted in serious injuries.

“Safety is our primary concern. The board consists of parents who obviously care very much about the safety of their own children, teachers and staff who have dedicated their lives to students, and if we really believed there were any significant safety concerns after working with the city staff, we wouldn’t be moving forward,” Josh Hartman, board chair for Potomac Crescent Waldorf School and a parent of two children at the school, said.

Paul Nary, director of administration for Potomac Crescent Waldorf School, noted that a similar plan is already in effect at the school’s current South Washington Street location. Pick-up and drop-off occur on Prince Street, and there is a time period where children are gathered on the sidewalk before being escorted into the school at 8 a.m.

“We will be escorting children immediately into the building at [North Washington Street], which differentiates that implementation from the current plan on Prince Street, and we will be escorting them directly to their awaiting cars at pick up time,” Nary said.

There is also a day care facility at 618 N. Washington St. that has two loading zones directly on North Washington Street where students are picked up and dropped off.

Other residents questioned how the pick-up and drop-off plan would impact traffic at the intersection and the immediate area.

“The issue is it’s 25 seconds per drop-off, 25 cars per 10-minute slot, and they’re saying that five [cars] are going to roll up, they’re going to exit 21 seconds at a time and then the next five will roll up,” Jim Bethard, who lives on the adjacent corner of North Washington and Oronoco streets, said. “… It’s going to be a disaster. It’s just a matter of time before somebody’s going to get hurt.”

Hartman clarified that pick-up and drop-off will be staggered by class and by program in order to avoid putting additional pressure on area traffic. In addition, Hartman said that 42% of households at the school are multi-child households and that about 6% of students walk to school.

“The idea that there will be 150 cars all arriving at the same time and there will only be 21 seconds for each car is not accurate math,” Hartman said.

According to Horowitz, the SUP for the project requires that the pick-up and drop-off plan be re-evaluated by city staff if there are issues with congestion or safety.

In his comments on the dais, Mayor Justin Wilson expressed concern with the pick-up and drop-off plan while acknowledging the project’s value as a provider of early childhood services.

“It’s tricky. It’s going to be a challenge, and I think to the applicant … you guys are going to need to make sure that everyone’s in full compliance and follows the conditions to the letter, and that’s going to require a high degree of cooperation from parents to make that happen,” Wilson said. “That’s going to be key, both for safety as well as to ensure this is a success.”

Vice Mayor Amy Jackson criticized the plan as “haphazard” and questioned its effectiveness.

“Are the kids ready to get out the door as soon as you pull up? No, they’re still telling you about breakfast. They don’t have their backpacks on,” Jackson said. “If you have two or three in a car, it takes a lot longer than 21 seconds, and they’re all climbing over each other to get out that one door.”

Councilor Sarah Bagley shared Jackson’s concerns about safety but argued that the project also fills needs that are specific to this area of Old Town.

“As we step a layer up from the particularities here, I see [the project] responding to resident feedback that I hear all the time about adequate childcare opportunities, about schools, about green spaces in this part of Old Town particularly,” Bagley said.

Councilor Canek Aguirre made a motion, which was seconded by Councilor John Chapman, to approve the SUP. Councilor Alyia Gaskins made an amendment to the motion that would require a review of the school and its pick-up and drop-off plan after six months, in addition to the previously required one-year review.

Council approved the SUP unanimously, 7-0.