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T. C. Design Plans Crawling Along

August 29, 2002

The School Board has decided to “slow down” the process for designing a new T. C. Williams High School to allow for additional community in-put.

"The goal here is to get the maximum amount of community in-put from the widest number of people in the city,” said Mark Wilkoff, a School Board member. “We think that we can do this better through a town meeting as opposed to having a public hearing at this point. Public hearings will be held but not at this time. We want people to feel that they are involved. This is a very important project – important to the entire community. That entire community needs to be involved in this process.”

The Board had originally scheduled a public hearing to discuss design options for T. C. on Sept. 19. That public hearing has become a town meeting at which members of the community will be invited to discuss, primarily the site on which the school is to be built but also some designs.

“At the retreat, the superintendent told us that she could not go forward until she was clear about the parameters of the site,” said V. Rodger Digilio, a School Board member. “Are we talking just about the site on which the school is currently built; are we talking about using a piece of Chinquapin or are we talking about building T. C. on the Chinquapin site and then developing the school site as a park? Those are decisions that the Board, City Council and the community need to make before we can go forward and we are going to concentrate on that as opposed to where we are going to put tennis courts or walls or fences. Once we have decided about the site, we can go forward with designing a school.”

THE SITE IS approximately 52 acres: the school sits on 19.88 acres and the remainder is dedicated to the park. “We need to look at this site as a whole,” said Sandra Whitmore, the director of the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Activities. “It is important that we design the best school, the best park and the best recreation facility for the entire community. This is a very important piece of property and a very important project. I am pleased to see that the process is still an open one and hope that we can all work together.”

Digilio said that the Board is doing some research about the site. “We want to look at the covenants that were in place when T.C. was originally built and determine if there were any restrictions at that time,” he said. “Also, we want to look at the boundaries of the T.C. school site. While the city may well own the entire parcel of land, Virginia code is very clear that school districts control school sites no matter who owns them.”

Bill Dickinson, president of the Seminary Hill Civic Association said, “We are very concerned that the superintendent told us at a meeting that she had consulted with the stakeholders,” he said. “As landowners adjacent to T.C. Williams, we certainly believe that we are stakeholders and we have not been involved in this process to date. As we did with the hospital, we want to work with the School Board on this project and hope that we can come to the Planning Commission and City Council when the time comes and wholeheartedly endorse the project.

"However, we are doing our own research and do have some concerns. We are particularly concerned that the architects on this project are treating us just like we are any other city and not taking into account the particular environment and needs of Alexandria. We live in a very densely populated area and we want to see some creativity in the way the school is designed.”

THOSE WHO LIVE on Bishop’s Lane and in the surrounding neighborhoods, have reportedly contacted an attorney to ensure that their rights are protected. “We certainly want to work with the neighbors and are sensitive to their concerns,” Digilio said.

Councilwoman Claire Eberwein is a member of the secondary school expansion steering committee. As a School Board member, she was often involved in discussions with the city over school land and who controls it.

“Land is land and it is a scarce resource here,” Eberwein said.” The question is how to make the site better serve the city as a whole and parsing it out in the old 'schools versus city way' precludes creative solutions on how to make this a premier community destination. Chinquapin and T. C. are in the center of the city and this process should lead to the creation of a jewel center that offers premier educational, cultural, athletic, and recreational resources to all of Alexandria.”

THE STEERING COMMITTEE, comprised of elected officials, city staff and members of the community, failed to come to a consensus on a design option, which was another factor in the Board’s decision to slow the process. The committee has been meeting with the superintendent and the architects since May. At the Aug. 6, meeting, only 25 of the 31 members was present. Of those, eight chose not to vote because of insufficient information; seven selected option 4A1 as their first choice and five selected option 4B as their first choice. The question of whether the steering committee will meet again is open.

“We may want to go back to the steering committee once we have resolved the site issue and come up with one or two designs,” Digilio said. “Whether it is the same steering committee or a reconstituted version of the steering committee that includes some additional people is yet to be determined.”

In the end analysis, the School Board must go to City Council for money to build the school, somewhere in the area of $80 million. The Board, Council and the Planning Commission will meet on Sept. 17, to discuss the site. The Board is anticipated to vote on a final design for the school in January. After that, the Planning Commission and then Council must approve that design and funding for it.

“My fiscal perspective has not changed from when I served on the school board,” Eberwein said. "Public officials need to make better use of our shared civic resources, both buildings and land. All the money comes from the same pot and we have a responsibility to the taxpayers to jointly plan wherever possible. There will not be much money coming out of Richmond and that will impact us locally, particularly in education. It is myopic to look at this as to who has control of what part of the site and that attitude has environmental consequences for the land. We need to view the site as a contiguous whole.”