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Coloring Bells Mill

Parents and architects continue to debate the color scheme for the elementary school modernization.

Parents, teachers and community members continued to grapple with the color scheme and capacity of the new and improved Bells Mill Elementary, slated for reopening in 2009.

About 20 people attended the second of five meetings on Aug. 15 about the 2009 modernization of Bells Mill. At 475 students, Bells Mill is expected to be over capacity by 164 if projections hold.

The $17.5 million modernization will include a demolition and rebuilding of the 38-year-old school, with capacity of 609 students. While Bells Mill is under construction, the school system will redraw elementary school boundaries so that some students from overcrowded Potomac and Seven Locks elementaries will be shifted to the modernized school.

Due to the construction, Bells Mill students will be relocated to Grosvenor Elementary in Bethesda for 18 months beginning in Dec. 2007.

AT THE MEETING, Mike Poness of WMCRP Architects discussed the school’s color, which had been a sticking point at the previous meeting, where the original color scheme had few supporters. Parents had expressed concern that a building with four major colors was too unorthodox to blend into the residential community.

Poness said the architects felt that a varied color palette was well suited to an elementary school. He presented a slide show of schools that WMCRP Architects had designed that use color, such as Bethesda Elementary Schools.

“Color is used to break down different parts of the building and differentiate them,” said Poness. “I think you could find many of these colors in your community.”

Nevertheless, the architectural firm followed through on their promise to bring a wider variety of color options to the parents.

“We sensed that some of you felt that we went too far, so we tried to calm things down,” said Poness.

The architects presented a series of color alternates in which the dominant hue was bluish gray, vanilla, rust, sage or red brick.

The muted blue and green designs were the most popular color schemes. However, some observers were most attracted to the original, four-color design that had drawn some criticism at the last meeting.

“I love this design,” said one mother. “You have a sense of color and I’m giving you my full support on whatever works. I don’t want to see us as parents and community members micromanaging your creativity.”

Nonetheless, others continued to resist the original design, which used large amounts of four different colors.

“I applaud the effort – it’s beautiful,” said Merry Eisner, president-elect of the PTA and mother of twin third-graders at Bells Mill. “But I feel a majority of the community would be comfortable with a little toning down.”

Bells Mill parent Alexis Bakos, whose daughter graduated from Bells Mill this year and whose son will attend in 2007, spoke up against the use of color in the original design at the first meeting. She reaffirmed her stance at Tuesday’s meeting.

“The problem is there’s no real pattern to those four major colors,” she said. “I would decrease the number of colors, or keep it at four colors and the fourth could be an accent or trim.”

In an interview after the meeting, Eisner said she felt the second meeting was more successful than the first because both the architects and the audience members seemed more open to compromise.

“I’m a daughter of an architect so I have profound respect for architecture,” she said. “It’s often hard for an artist to stand there and take, ‘Well, I prefer green’ [from audience members]…. I thought they handled themselves really well. They really listened.”

After the architect showed tangible samples of painted building materials, several parents noted that the color in the design drawings was inaccurate. What appeared to be yellow in the drawing was closer to beige. The architectural firm agreed to fine-tune the designs to portray the colors more authentically at the next meeting.

Eisner said she was leaning toward a color scheme with fewer colors but will reserve judgment until she sees the more precise drawings.

“If the drawings are accurate, I might surprise myself and not mind blue, red, green and yellow all in one place.”

KEVIN MCPARTLAND, for WMCRP Architects, traced his finger along the playground space in the design drawings.

“This is a possible location for a portable,” he said, lowering his voice to a dramatic whisper at the mention of a trailer.

Parents laughed.

“You mean a learning cottage,” said one audience member.

At the last meeting, the school officials suggested that parents might have some limited input into whether the school system would build the two additional rooms immediately to increase capacity to 640, or to hold off until the extra space is clearly needed. At this meeting, it appeared that school officials had already decided to postpone the addition.

“We’ve said the dreaded portable word,” said Eisner. “At what point can we say it’s time to build those two classrooms?”

Projections suggest that the addition won’t be necessary, said James Tokar, structural engineer and project manager for the school system’s division of construction. If unexpected growth does occur, he said that trailers would likely come first, and then the addition.

“The [modernized school’s] capacity is based on 85 percent capacity,” said James Song, director of construction for Montgomery County Public Schools. “[An addition] just is not warranted at this point given the projected enrollments.”

Representatives of the school system said at the last meeting that the division’s projections are 99.7 percent accurate.

The modernization of Bells Mill would provide relief to the overcrowded parking lot. There are currently about 48 parking spaces total and 65 staff members at the school. The renovation will create as many as 98 spaces and a nearby daycare parking lot will provide overflow parking.

“I think the community is having a hard time, especially parents” with the lack of parking, said Principal Jerri Oglesby. “We have 46 full-time staff and 19 part-time, and as many as 65 people are trying to park in a lot with 42 parking spaces, so there are cars jam-packed everywhere.

“I think in that parking lot there will be plenty of spaces to go around,” she added, motioning to the design drawings for the modernization.

Tokar warned that Park and Planning could adjust the number of parking spaces, which he said is typically about 80 for a school the size that Bells Mill will be after modernization.

THE ARCHITECTURAL FIRM is cautious of the environmental impact of the planned construction.

“Stormwater management during the construction process is a major concern for everyone, and the company looks at it through a magnifying glass… to make sure there’s no impact outside the boundaries of the site,” said McPartland.

One protective measure will be “silt fences” in areas downhill of the construction so that mud isn’t carried into neighbors’ yards with rain.

Tokar said that a geothermal field would provide a more efficient and environmentally friendly heating and cooling system than traditional HVAC systems.

"Essentially what you're using is the temperature of the water that's in the ground to either supplement your cooling or supplement your heating, depending on what the outside temperature is," he said.

The additional cost of the field can be recouped in saved energy costs in about13 years, and likely sooner if energy prices continue to increase, said Tokar. However, installation of the well is unlikely because start-up costs would total more than $800,000.

“Because we have chosen to accept the plans [originally designed for the Kendale site] with minor modifications instead of starting from scratch, it was my understanding that we knocked a half million [dollars] off the site,” said one mother. “Does that mean that any of that comes back to us?”

“I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” said Tokar. “As we go through the process, we’ll see if there are special needs or things you would like to have. If it’s in the budget, we’ll consider that.”

ADD ALTERNATES are wish list items that will be bid out and possibly selected if the main project comes in under budget in fall 2007. Tokar said that the school system would consult the principal about what additional features might be included rather than an entire committee of parents, teachers and administrators. He said that it is not unusual for construction projects to come in under budget.

Eisner is disappointed that the add alternate for the geothermal field is unlikely, but she respects the school division’s prioritization.

“If I had to choose I would still pick the gym,” she said. “I would like to see the county take a leadership role in utilizing the best possible environmental practices, but so long as the money we receive from the state is as little as it is, I recognize that choices are necessary.”

<b>New and Improved</b>

Features of the modernized Bells Mill Elementary:

* The number of parking spaces will be increased to at least 80 and possibly as many as 98.

* Separate areas for bus traffic and parent drop-off traffic.

* Reconfigured and re-graded ball fields.

* An expanded second floor, which will house an upgraded media center. An elevator will allow handicap accessibility.

* One pre-kindergarten class, four kindergarten classes, and 21 classes for grades 1 through 5.

* There will be a special cluster of three classrooms to house the current autism program. Two of the classrooms will share a private bathroom.

* The large entrance was designed so that teachers will have “the potential to oversee the whole arrival sequence” of the students.

* Related arts classes such as art and music will be clustered around a courtyard.

* The preschool classroom will be located in the front of the building so that the youngsters do not have to traverse through the school.

* There will be special play areas for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students.

* There will be a room for PTA storage.

* An enlarged administrative suite will feature an office for an assistant principal.

* Artificial and natural buffers will block noise for surrounding residents.

* A new gymnasium.