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TC Expansion Options Reviewed

Unanswered Questions Leave Many Shaking Their Heads

August 8, 2002

Balancing the need for a new high school and the desire for green space remains the challenge for architects and Alexandria’s elected officials. Clearly, not everyone is happy with the process.

"In June, we were asked to rank our preference for a number of options, were thanked for our efforts and were dismissed,” said Sandra Whitmore, the director of the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Activities.

“Now, here we are in August, being presented with a new option that many of us have had less than 48 hours to study, and we are again being asked to rank our preferences. Without sitting down with the architects and with the athletic department staff at T. C. Williams so that we can clearly discuss our needs, I don’t feel that I can express an opinion.”

Others echoed Whitmore’s concerns. “I’ve looked at all of these options and appreciate all of the work that the architects have done,” said Councilwoman Claire Eberwein. “I just don’t see the right option here yet. Also, I need some more information about parking. Why do we need 775 parking spaces? In every other option, we have had 650 parking spaces. Now, with this new option, there are 775. Who uses these spaces? How many are needed for faculty? How many are reserved for students? How many are needed for athletic and other large events at the school?

"We, of course, need sufficient parking for the staff. We don’t want them parking in the neighborhood. We need sufficient parking for large events. We need to allow for student parking for those students who are involved in co-op programs: That’s part of their educational experience. If we close the campus, why do we need to provide parking for students who drive because they want to drive? That’s a policy decision, and without the numbers, I don’t know how to make that decision. But it may come down to a choice between more student parking and more green space, and we need the numbers to make that decision.”

SUPERINTENDENT Rebecca L. Perry indicated that there are currently 334 parking spaces at the school, 250 reserved for faculty and 84 reserved for students. “We have 310 employees at T. C. Williams, so if every one of them drove, we would have insufficient parking right now,” Perry said. She agreed to research Eberwein’s question and get the information to the steering committee.

The group of around 25 citizens, including at least three elected officials, two School Board members and Eberwein, was asked to consider one option for renovating Minnie Howard and four options for renovating T. C. Williams. There were relatively few questions about Minnie Howard, as consensus was achieved on that project both at the last committee meeting and at a School Board work session. The only issue raised was related to enlarging the auditorium.

“Because of the cost of doing that, we did not include it as part of this program,” said Jim Copeland, one of the educational architects who have been hired to design the two facilities.

“We can accommodate the entire school in the new gymnasium, if we need to,” said Martha Johnson, a teacher at Minnie Howard, who has been involved in the process since the beginning.

T.C. WILLIAMS, however, was an entirely different matter. The four options remaining under consideration are iterations of old Options 4 and 5. All involve constructing parking structures that are either two or three stories, and two of the four involve using part of Chinquapin Park. One of these options involves building the school where the park is today and then designing a new park on the current school site.

“The park would be smaller,” Copeland said. “This does not mean that it couldn’t be a better facility. You would have the opportunity to design the park to include a number of activities that are not currently there. Smaller doesn’t necessarily mean not as good.”

The park currently contains 23 acres. This would be reduced by from five to seven acres with Option 5. Also, there would be a need to place up to 22 additional trailers on the site to accommodate displaced students during the construction of all the options except Option 5, where the school could be constructed while students remained in the current facility. This would mean the park might not be usable during the two to three years of construction, no matter what option is ultimately selected.

“I am very concerned about the educational experience of those students who are now in middle school,” said Margaret Fitzsimons, a parent of two such students. “Those kids are going to be educated in construction sites for the next six years, at G.W. now, then at Minnie Howard and finally at T.C. Williams. I personally might be willing to give up an acre of the park to see that their educational experience is the same as the current T.C. Williams experience that has been so good for so many students. If that cannot be assured, parents have no reason to send their children to T.C. Williams, and if they don’t have T.C. Williams to look forward to, why send their children to the middle schools?”

Perry responded. “I understand that this is an issue, but we can’t do nothing,” she said. “We need to continue to move forward, keeping that in mind, of course.”

A. MELVIN MILLER, a former School Board member and a member of the committee, spoke about the neighborhood. “We need to remember what happened when T.C. Williams was built,” he said. “T.C. Williams sits on land that was owned by some of the same people who live in the surrounding neighborhood. When the school was built, promises were made to those people that life in their neighborhood would be protected. We need to make sure that those promises are kept.”

None of the options include replacing the current sports barn, which would be torn down. The same square footage is included in a much larger main gymnasium. “It really isn’t the same thing,” Whitmore said. “We use the barn for much more than playing basketball. It is more like a field house.”

The barn is used for baseball tryouts and clinics, for indoor track-and-field practice, for football drills and for basketball practice for T.C. Williams teams and for community youth teams. Without a separate facility, these activities would have to find a home somewhere else in the city. Recreation and athletic department staff have yet to meet with the architects, despite Whitmore’s request to do so after the June steering committee meeting. That meeting is scheduled to take place on Aug. 23.

Perry had hoped that the group could come to a consensus to communicate to the School Board at this year’s Board retreat, scheduled for Aug. 25 and 26. “If you don’t feel that you can rank the current options, make a note of that and sign your name,” she said. “If you think that this group should meet again, write that down, too.”

That type of a meeting was made more likely when Eberwein presented another option at the end of the meeting. “Using what you have done with these options, I sat down with some tracing paper and came up with another option,” she said. “There are probably problems with it, just as there are with the other options, but I think it solves a number of the concerns.”

MANY MEMBERS of the committee wanted to explore this option further because it decreases the amount of park space that would be used, puts the athletic and cultural uses all in one area, including the recreation center, the athletic fields, the gymnasium and the lockers. It moves the academic wing to a quieter, more passive part of the park and protects the community gardens. It also allows for significant green space on King Street and avoids the need for an 18-foot-tall retaining wall, which would be required for Option 4.5. Copeland said that he would like to look at this plan.

So what is the School Board going to get from the committee? “Hopefully some sort of consensus about their thinking,” said Dr. Stephen Kenealy, a member of the School Board and of the steering committee. “Even if they vote that none of the options is the right one, that is guidance.”

School Board chairman Mark Eaton was also present at the meeting and expressed his gratitude to the group. “I think that the one thing I am taking away from this discussion is that we all want the best educational facility that we can design and the best park that we can design,” he said. “I think that we can all agree on at least that.”

The School Board will discuss the matter further at its annual retreat at the end of August. On Sept. 17, there will be a joint work session with City Council and the School Board to discuss the issue. Then, on Sept. 19, there will be a public hearing at which members of the community are encouraged to express their opinions. The schedule calls for a School Board vote to select a plan for T.C. Williams in November. The current options are available for review on the school system’s Web site at http://www.acps.k12.va.us/.