Who runs the city?

Who runs the city?
(Photo/Henry Adams Consulting Engineers)

By Frank Putzu 

In 2012, athletic facilities at Francis Hammond Middle School were renovated to install a turf field and running track. The city held a dedication ceremony led by Mayor William Euille to celebrate the grand opening. A lot of residents, councilors and school officials worked long and hard to get the track, which became a critical community asset, drawing residents from the surrounding neighborhoods, including affordable housing.

The track has been heavily used by the school. There are dozens of people, if not more, using the track daily for exercise, even including mothers pushing strollers.

Now, the city is installing lights for the field with the poles located on the track. It will essentially ruin the track. What’s worse is that noone informed anyone that was the plan. Quite a change from the capacity and utility that was realized when Euille cut the ribbon 10 years ago.

Last year, RPCA submitted a special use permit for lighting rectangular playing fields at multiple school properties, including Hammond. RPCA’s Deputy Director Jack Browand briefed the School Board showing the location of the light poles at Hammond between the outside edge of the track and the sidewalk on Pickett Street, where it violated setback requirements but would not impact school operations and the track. The same representations were made at both community meetings and to multiple organizations.

RPCA quietly changed the location of the poles from out- side the track to inside the track when it got to Council. At the City Council public hearing on this matter last November, RPCA presented an aerial depiction of a lit Hammond field. On that presentation slide, the lights appear to be off the inside edge of the track, but certainly not on it. The staff report contains the same aerial depiction on two separate pages.

Last Thursday, Seminary Hill Association reached out to City Council and School Board members to inform them that large holes had been drilled for the installation of light poles in the third lane of the track. Who would do that? The city said that the mistake was the fault of the contractor, who would be responsible for fixing it.

The very next day, new holes were drilled – in the first lane of the track, but still on the track.

One Council member responded that if one very closely examines a contractor drawing all the way back on page 179 of the staff report – after about 150 pages of emails where no one was likely to see and examine it – it shows the lights over the field, and the poles situated in the first lane of the track.

It is of course silly to think any Council member ignored the presentation and body of staff report, let alone every presentation for months, to latch onto a page deep into nearly 300 pages of thick information to figure out that the track was at risk.

Staff said nothing about risking the track at the Council hearing. Certainly no member of the public would think that staff would slip in an image on page 179 and not verbalize the likely loss of the track’s usefulness and the obvious safety issue to any elected or appointed body or the neighboring community.

But they did.

Vice Mayor Amy Jackson and Councilor Alyia Gaskins have expressed concern about the compromise of the track’s usefulness and inherently unsafe conditions. No other Council members have yet expressed any concern with staff’s “slipping it in” without verbal disclosure on such a fundamental change to a valued athletic facility that the community fought so hard for.

Mayor Justin Wilson attempted to decree the matter “closed” without addressing anything but of course he is only one of seven Councilors and not on the School Board.

Not one School Board member has responded to SHA. Hopefully, we will hear directly from School Board members soon. After all, it is their property, operations and students that have now been compromised, and they too were left in the dark. 

Had it been known that RPCA staff intended to ruin the track, it would have significantly affected the discussions. Now, our elected bodies and their staffs are scrambling to assert that this was a good decision because an obscure and vague drawing overrides the presentation and body of the staff report, and months of representations.

In the end, that is bureaucratic sleight of hand only – no one knew the track was at risk, and that is what matters. Were Council and School Board members aware their affirmative votes would equate to ruining the Hammond Middle School track? Doubtful.

Despite this turmoil and mistakes, the city continues to rush forward with this project despite a related ongoing lawsuit. To date, the city has pretended that litigation does not exist, although they have been notified they may have to take the poles down.

SHA requested that further construction be halted and that city officials re-open the process before they further ruin the track for our residents, middle school students and community users. Instead, the city is rushing construction, in what appears to be an effort to beat a court’s potential decision or avoid proper authorization from Council and the School Board.

Who is running this city?

The writer is a lawyer and longtime Alexandria resident who is vice president of the Seminary Hill Association.