As school officials raise questions about the legitimacy of the city’s projected time line for planning and constructing a new and renovated T.C. Williams High School, questions remain about the system’s own planning process.
City staff presented the proposed time line to school staff on Nov. 20, and it was discussed at the monthly meeting among the chair and vice chair of the School Board and the mayor and vice mayor. It was also discussed at the Dec. 12 School Board meeting and in a Dec. 2 memorandum from Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry to the Board.
The time line goes from the concept phase that has been slated to begin in February 2003 to a project completion date of March 2007. School officials have insisted that the new T.C. Williams must open in the fall of 2006.
Board member Dr. Stephen J. Kenealy suggested that perhaps the city was delaying the opening of the school to spread the funding for the project over one additional fiscal year. Board member V. Rodger Digilio suggested that the schedule was designed to facilitate cooperative planning. Perry suggested in her memorandum that the time line could be shortened and said that she had hired an attorney with that in mind.”
School Board chairman Mark Eaton said that he was going to proceed as if the city’s time line was what they said it was. “I am going to take this at face value and not suggest that there are any hidden agendas,” he said. “If we just do our jobs, we will be fine.”
CITY STAFF SAID that the time line was designed to make certain that the project is done properly. “The process that everyone has been talking about isn’t just the planning and zoning process, but the construction process as well,” said Kimberley Johnson, the chief of the development division within the city’s Department of Planning and Zoning. Johnson has been involved in the T.C. Williams process since the steering committee was convened last spring.
The Planning and Zoning process takes a project from concept through preliminary design to Planning Commission and City Council approval, final site plan design and finally, release of permits so that the construction can begin. “The way the process works, in general, is that there is a requirement for someone who is planning a project to come in at least 90 days before they submit a preliminary site plan for concept review,” Johnson said.
Eileen Fogarty, the director of Planning and Zoning, explained further. “That 90 days would be for a simple four-unit residential project,” she said. “We think that the T.C. project is much more complex and may take longer. Ninety days is a minimum.”
Before that concept phase can begin, the school system has some work to do. “They are ahead of the game as far as conceptual layouts because that’s really what they have been doing, but in all of the scenarios that we have seen, there are significant traffic and parking issues,” Johnson said. “I think they are just beginning to do some work in that area.”
Before the concept phase, the school system needs to conduct some topographical studies of the site. “They need to identify any grade issues, the impact on the Resource Protection Area, the location of major utilities and the location of large trees,” Johnson said.
ONE OF THOSE utilities was identified for the school system while the city’s architects were conducting just such topographical investigation at Chinquapin Park. The city and the school system are working jointly to design T.C. Williams and an expanded Chinquapin Recreation Center to meet the needs of the students and the broader community. One of the expansions that is deemed essential at Chinquapin is the lengthening of the indoor swimming pool to make it competition-size. City architects, who have been looking at the project for less than two months, located a storm sewer that runs in front of the recreation center and will have an impact on the city’s ability to lengthen the pool.
“We don’t know where that sewer runs,” Digilio told Board members at last week’s meeting. “It may run in front of the school and could have an impact on the design that is currently being considered. I would have hoped that our own architects would have discovered this by this stage in the process.”
Board member Gwendolyn Lewis agreed. “This is very disturbing,” she said. “I certainly would hope that our own architects would have known about this, and I want to know what this is going to mean to the major design that we are considering,” she said.
City engineer Emily Baker did some research and discovered that the storm sewer in question is 72 inches in diameter and runs from Chinquapin all the way across the T.C. Williams site, coming close to King Street at the northwest corner of the school property.
“The storm sewer serves Bradlee Shopping Center, the Seminary, Minnie Howard, T.C. Williams and the houses on King and Quaker,” Baker said. “It runs under the T.C. Williams parking lot and across the front of the property. The outfall is at Chinquapin. The storm water flows into the creek that eventually winds up in Holmes Run.”
BAKER SAID that the large pipe has many smaller pipes running into it. “It could certainly be relocated,” she said. “The cost of that relocation is hard to calculate because it depends on what other work is being done. For example, if they are going to be moving a lot of dirt to begin with, relocation might not add so much to the cost. Also, until we see where they want to put the buildings, we won’t know whether they have to relocate it or not. You cannot build a building on top of a sewer or so close to it that the operation of the sewer might be affected.”
One developer who looked at the most recent iteration of the school system’s preferred concept for T.C. (known as C3) said that the sewer goes through the front of the building and that moving the building back would cause the loss of some classrooms. “The school system has had these architects on board for quite some time,” said Mayor Kerry J. Donley. “I would certainly have hoped that they would have been aware of something like this before now.”
Grade also appears to be an issue on the site. Bill Brandon is an architect and the parent of two children who attend the Alexandria public school system.
“Just looking at the site, I thought there were some elevation issues,” he said. “I asked for the information, and when it was not forthcoming, I went out with a geo positioning device and walked it. There is a minimum of a 30-foot difference in grade from the lowest point on the site to the highest. The way the architects have sited C3, the entrance to the building is at about the midpoint, putting it about 15 feet above grade, and the locker rooms would be 15 feet underground. The way it is designed, it just won’t work.”
The educational program will also have an impact on the design of the school. Determining what will be offered in terms of curriculum will have an impact on the square footage for various areas — specifically vocational education.
“We have not seen a proposal on vocational education, and I, for one, will not vote on any design that makes a decision without seeing the program first,” Digilio said. The educational plan will be submitted to the Board in May 2003.
THE CONCEPT PHASE is where the details can be worked out. “We can talk to everyone, allow other agencies to comment and raise concerns before we get to the preliminary site plan,” Fogarty said.
That phase is where Perry would like to shave some time. A new time line that has been presented to the city staff by school staff calls for this piece of the process to take only two months. “While we haven’t reviewed their new time line carefully, that is of concern, because it shortens the time for community input into the process,” Fogarty said.
The school system’s proposed time line would take the project from concept to City Council approval by September 2003, as opposed to the city’s proposal, which would have set Council hearings for December 2003. “The time line that we have proposed is our optimistic assessment,” Fogarty said. “We will certainly take a look at what they have proposed, however. We want to be cooperative.”
Donley was clear about his concerns. “This is perhaps the most important building that we will design, and it must last for the next 50 years,” he said. “We will not allow there to be any shortcuts in the process that could affect quality.”
The School Board will vote on the site for the new school on Dec. 19. “I hope that we keep this vote very general,” Digilio said. “We should select a site, generally, and then move to the next phase.”
Rod Kuckro is a civic activist, who also has children in the school system, one at T.C. Williams and the other at George Washington Middle School. “We certainly need to renovate or rebuild T.C. Williams,” he said. “It is overcrowded now. However, it is more important that we plan this process carefully than that we have the school open in 2006.”
Cost Overruns at GWMS
The construction project at George Washington Middle School is experiencing cost overruns and delays.
In a memorandum from John Johnson, assistant superintendent for financial and administrative services, through Perry to the School Board, Johnson explained, “The George Washington Middle School expansion project has experienced a number of unforeseen existing site conditions that have resulted in additional project costs.
“When construction of the bus loop roadway was started and excavation was begun, the contractor encountered the underground piping that connects the cooling tower with the main HVAC systems located in the main building. These pipes had to be re-engineered and lowered in order to construct the bus loop roadway. This unforeseen existing condition has resulted in a change order to the construction contract in the amount of $85,150.
“At various locations under the newly constructed administration offices, library, auxiliary gym and sixth-grade center, poor soil conditions had to be undercut, removed and replaced. These soils included approximately 3 to 4 feet in depth of construction debris and fill materials from when the original buildings were constructed," Johnson noted.
“The total cost over and above the contract amount to remove and replace these soils is approximately $450,000. The contractor has also submitted a claim for construction delay for a total of 105 days due to work being interrupted while the unforeseen existing conditions mentioned above were remediated. ...
“In order to complete the work … and make up for the 105 days … an accelerated work schedule would have to be implemented. … The contractor has estimated the accelerated schedule to cost approximately $200,000."
JOHNSON SAID, “The total of the unforeseen existing conditions, poor soils and the accelerated schedule amount to $735,150. It is therefore recommended that the budget be increased by $1 million to fund these additional unforeseen expenses.”
The project was slated to be completed in time for the opening of the 2003-04 school year. Unless the School Board opts for the accelerated schedule, the buildings will be finished in November 2003.
“In large renovation projects such as this, there are often unforeseen conditions that result in delays and cost overruns,” Digilio said. “However, since we are building a school that will likely be about 50-percent over the capacity that we need next year, I plan to question the need to pay for the accelerated schedule. While I am mindful of the need to provide our students with the best learning environment possible, I am also mindful of budget constraints.”
The soil conditions were tested prior to construction. Eighteen different soil borings were taken, and no adverse conditions were found.
The School Board will discuss this matter at the Dec. 19 meeting. “I have not seen a supplemental request for funds, and I will look at it if it comes, but my initial reaction is not positive,” said Councilman David G. Speck. “We have some very serious budget issues already.”
Donley agreed. “I hope that the School Board looks for this money internally,” he said. “Asking the city to come up with an additional $1 million this year is going to be very difficult.”
Councilwoman Claire Eberwein served on the School Board for six years prior to being elected to City Council. She has two children who are currently in elementary school in the city’s public school system. She also served as City Council’s liaison to the T.C. Williams Steering Committee.
“At this juncture, I have some concerns over the site analysis, educational program and building design at T.C. I simply cannot understand this fixation on the originally scheduled opening date,” she said. “As we can see with G.W., even with the best laid plans, delays happen. The focus should be on working cooperatively with the city to produce the best integrated high-school educational and recreational center that meets the needs of students and citizens alike. Public officials are stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars, and as such, it is incumbent to look carefully on how those funds are entrusted. We want an excellent project. Alexandria deserves nothing less.”