Alexandria: Goldilocks Approach

Alexandria: Goldilocks Approach

City Council reluctantly approves programming size for Patrick Henry Recreation Center.

— A recommendation on the scale of the new Patrick Henry Recreation Center escalated into one City Council member calling on the city manager to fire the project staff. At the council’s June 24 meeting, the one before summer recess, members of council repeatedly expressed dismay that what should have been a positive review of plans for the Patrick Henry Recreation Center were quickly becoming a nightmare scenario of miscommunication between the Parks Department staff, the School Board, and the public.

Plans to rebuild the Patrick Henry Recreation Center, located adjacent to Patrick Henry Elementary School, date back to a strategic plan formulated in 2002. The recommendation at the time was to take the current facility, which serves primarily as a gym and after-school programming for Patrick Henry Elementary School, and increase the building size to 15,000 square feet to serve the entire neighborhood. No development occurred until 2008, when after a series of community meetings and a feasibility study that recommended the same expansion, development continued to not occur. However, with plans underway to demolish and rebuild the adjacent Patrick Henry Elementary, staff has put through another feasibility study and at the council meeting recommended a development similar to the 2002 proposal.

Three options for Patrick Henry Recreation Center programming were presented: one that served just the school, one that served the neighborhood, and one built for city-wide use. Parks Department Staff recommended the middle route, one that served the neighborhood.

But while three options were presented, Councilman Paul Smedberg noted that the school-level center wasn’t really being considered as feasible, leaving the council with two unsatisfactory choices. In a letter to the council, the Parks and Recreation Commission stated that it could not endorse the current plan for the Patrick Henry Recreation Center without a higher level plan for how to address the recreational needs of the West End.

“This disagreement in the community, along with budget constraints, is the reason why RPCA has, like Goldilocks, settled on the middle ‘neighborhood’ option,” said the Parks Commission. “The prospect that significant recreational needs will go unmet on the West End is why the commission could not vote to endorse it. Without an assurance that expanded programming will be offered somewhere in this half of the City, we cannot say for certain that a community-centered facility should be taken off the table…. The Patrick Henry recommendation illustrates why a high-level plan should be a priority. In its current form, the Patrick Henry Recreation Center… does not provide programming to residents during the day, or on the weekend.”

However, other nearby residents expressed disapproval that the school serving center was not more seriously considered. As an alternative to the neighborhood or city-wide redevelopment, local resident Mary Biegel highlighted the possibility of expanding the Chinquapin or Ramsey Recreation Centers.

The turmoil began with questions over the confines of the project. The City Council expressed universal disappointment with the lack of clarity

“Is this the right spot?” asked Councilman Paul Smedberg. “I know we have the land, but is it truly the right investment?”

“I would rather not put all of our eggs in one basket here,” said Mayor William Euille. “I would rather have multiple new facilities and site them where we can that’s more feasible… but we don’t have the luxury of having another site available.”

However, in their letter to the City Council, the Parks Commission highlighted the possibility of looking into other areas in the West End for development.

“The amount of available land on the West End is both a blessing and a curse,” said the Parks Commission. “It is a blessing because the City has many large sites where it could provide needed programming in the future, including Patrick Henry, Cameron Run Regional Park, the Eisenhower West area, and Hensley Park (which has already been planned), to name a few. But having these sites available also makes it easy to kick the can down the road on recreation. As long there is some unplanned piece of land out there, there will always be another hypothetical location for the recreational programming everyone agrees that we need, but that many do not want to “host” in their own neighborhood.”

Biegel, in a letter to the City Council, also raised concerns regarding many process issues related to the development.

“The Parks and Recreation community meetings (June 4 & 6), the Rec Center Feasibility study (dated June 8 but posted online on June 12), the community survey (closed June 15), the recommendation (June 16), and the Parks and Recreation Commission Meeting (June 18) were all done in the last 3 weeks.,” wrote Biegel. “The community has had very limited time to review, provide feedback and receive answers about the information provided.”

The criticism struck a nerve with Council Member Del Pepper, who took issue with the way the process was being sped through.

“A whole bunch of this happened in the last three weeks and it didn’t always give the neighbors, who were very much concerned, and opportunity to respond in a meaningful way,” said Pepper. “I have to say, this was a really bad process. The decision we make tonight lays out a great deal, it’s quite a commitment, and the neighbors haven’t had their say.”

Pepper acknowledged that the residents had an opportunity to speak on the issue at a public forum hosted by the Parks Department, but the issue had never been brought before City Council for a public hearing.

Jim Spengler, Director of Recreation, Parks, and Cultural Activities, said that the timeline for public input was compressed because the Department had to wait on the schools to make certain determinations for the Patrick Henry Recreation Center.

“Our direction throughout this process has been to stay on the school schedule so that the school itself would not be held up in any way,” said Spengler.

However, in earlier School Board meetings, School Board members expressed frustrations that much of the design elements for the Patrick Henry School had to be stalled until the Parks Department released information on the programming size for the Patrick Henry Recreation Center.

When Euille asked to see the specifications for the building, none were available, and it raised other concerns.

“We don’t have a layout at this point to show you the mass of the rec center and the school or how people will access the site and where the drop off point will be,” said Emily Baker, Deputy City Manager, referring to recent controversy over a potential entrance to the school and recreation center from a nearby two-lane residential street.. “We’re asking Council to focus on program level of what we want to see in the site and to allow us to work with the school staff over the summer. We are very sensitive to [these] concerns. We need to work with the designer to come up with what that looks like on the site, but we need to know that we’re looking at the right program level.”

However, some in the City Council expressed a belief that it was impossible to separate the size of the programming from problems with the eventual design of the building.

“I don’t see programming as a separate issue,” said Pepper, “it impacts how big the building is eventually going to be.”

“I don’t want to be telling the community what we want inside the building,” said Euille. “We want the community to tell us what they want. Why can’t we slow this down and wait until September to have more community input?”

Pepper proposed that the decision on programming be deferred until the fall, when the Council can host more public hearings and receive community input on the size of the facility's programming. However, Mark Eisenhower, Principal of Construction for Alexandria Public Schools, said this suggestion came with it’s own share of problems. Namely, Eisenhower said that delaying the decision on the size for the Patrick Henry Recreation Center would have detrimental repercussions for the Patrick Henry School construction project.

“[The Schools] do have a pretty strict timeline,” said Eisenhower. “To open in Fall of 2018, we would need to break ground by May of 2017. This would make the timelines tighter. It wouldn’t be impossible to finish but it would be difficult.”

While each member expressed disapproval with how the process was handled, some felt that the neighborhood selection was the inevitable choice, and agreed with Eisenhower’s assessment that the schools were on a fairly strict timeline.

“I do like the neighborhood option,” said Councilman John Chapman. “It allows additional programming where we need it. The bigger option doesn’t take into affect current budgets… and I don’t think anyone is happy with the school serving. I think the neighborhood option is the way to go, and we do need to move forward with a decision… We have a time table. There is a growing number of students in our schools that we are not prepared for.”

Ultimately, the City Council declined to delay until the fall. The Council unanimously accepted the neighborhood programming selection to inform future design, with an added note that the staff bring forward a specific community engagement plan to commence over the summer and continue into the fall, though not without harsh words towards the Parks Department Staff.

“If I were you, Mr. City Manager, I would get a whole new team to direct this project,” said Smedberg. “This has really been poor.”