More than 250 citizens came to view four different conceptual drawings of the proposed T.C. Williams school site last week.
“I think it was a very positive meeting,” said John Porter, the principal at T.C. Williams. “It was a good opportunity for members of the community to tell us what they like and don’t like about these ideas for the school and to share their concerns. As a manager, I’m very interested in the process, and this was a good one for giving a lot of people an opportunity to speak.”
After the attendees listened to a presentation from the school system’s architects, they divided into groups and discussed the merits of each concept. Then, spokespersons from each group gave a synopsis of the comments.
Comments ran the gamut from “the least disruptive option, educationally, is to build an entirely new school on Chinquapin” to “it is important that we preserve our park and the green space.” The general sense was that none of the options presented was exactly right, however.
“I would really like to see the architects use the site more creatively,” said Bill Brandon, a citizen who is the parent of two children who will attend T.C. Williams. “The changes in elevation can be an asset, not a hindrance.”
School Board member V. Rodger Digilio was pleased to see so many citizens at the meeting. “I am very pleased that so many people got to express their points of view and put their issues on the table,” he said. “We will keep these and other comments in mind as we move forward.”
THE RESIDENTS of Seminary Hill, the school’s nearest neighbors, expressed their concern about preserving open space, if not on the site, then somewhere else in the city; minimizing outdoor loudspeakers, both during the school day and at athletic events; having no lights at the stadium if it is kept on-site; and minimizing the disruption to the neighbors during construction.
A. Melvin Miller chaired the task force that looked at the issues related to building a new high school for Seminary Hill. Miller has had some recent experience with designing projects that have raised concerns among neighbors. He is the chairman of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s Board (ARHA), which is currently redeveloping The Berg and building public housing at two sites in the city’s west end.
“At the stage we are in looking at a new or renovated T.C. Williams, I think it would be better for all concerned if we first determine where to put the footprint of the school, rather than what everything is going to look like, including adjacent facilities,” Miller said. “Too often, people tend to fixate on where the basketball court is, where the classrooms are, where the football field is or where the parking is. Really, that comes in the next stage, because theses things can be moved around. The first decision has to be what are we building on, and then the other decisions come later. We should be concerned about what we are building of course, but when the appropriate time for designing arrives, and we are not there.
“In the ARHA process, I tried to get us to not focus on a specific building or draw too many pictures of what the building would look like but to make decisions about where the buildings would go and then have the discussion about specifics when we get to the design phase.”
THE SCHOOL BOARD and the City Council have agreed in principle to move forward and develop the entire T.C. Williams/Chinquapin site as a whole. The city will hire its own architects to assist in moving the process forward. “Many of the comments made at the town meeting revolved around issues that were raised in the steering committee meetings,” said Councilwoman Claire Eberwein, who was a member of the steering committee on secondary school expansion. “What remains unchanged is a sense that the current set of plans does not meet the needs of the city. I believe that the joint planning process that was set up at the meeting between the School Board, City Council, the Planning Commission and the Parks and Recreation Commission can resolve most, if not all, of the site and use constrictions to the benefit of all. To that end, the city will move forward to hire an architect to make sure that the planning process is a truly cooperative and coordinated effort
“This process will require more up-front planning time,” she continued. “This is to be expected when you are building to last for 50 years in such an important and prominent location in Alexandria. The planning time is an investment that must be made. The alternative is to have delays during the land-use approval and funding phases, which would be extremely disruptive to the students. That must be avoided.”