City Council expressed cautious optimism on Tuesday, Nov. 27 about a plan to help optimize decision-making about delivering public services and addressing costly deferred maintenance of public facilities.
The city’s Strategic Facilities Plan could shape a forthcoming joint planning process with the public schools.
The city government and school system manage a lot of real estate. An array of 166 properties, 93 percent of them owned rather than leased, include an array of facilities — fire and police stations, schools, libraries, offices, parking, etc. — plus numerous vacant lots. Many facilities are slated for major overhauls or replacement.
A condition assessment study of 109 city-owned facilities, not including school division facilities, reported an average building age of 62 years. About two-thirds received letter grades of C, D or F. The new plan estimates the city must invest $201 million over 10 years to maintain current conditions; $286 million to attain B-grades; $351 to attain A-grades.
The school division is currently assessing its facilities using a comparable system, so that council can make apples-to-apples decisions about relative priorities, said Jeremy McPike, the city’s general services director. Though the division doesn’t expect the results until around springtime, similarly assessments are likely.
The schools’ work will “augment” the city’s, said McPike. Eventually they’d mesh together in a long-term Joint Facilities Master Plan. A joint plan would, based on development and population forecasts and targets, help determine where core services and facilities should be best located to serve Alexandrians over the next 20-30 years. It would help identify “opportunities to bundle projects for efficiency in execution” and use of scarce land, according to an advisory task force’s report.
Aiming to take a step in this direction, the city is considering how to redeploy its assets, rather than fixing or replacing ailing facilities. Redeployment could entail co-location or consolidation of services, both within and between departments, and shifting facilities to fill service gaps in the West End.
The city’s Department of Community and Human Services, currently spread across seven sites, would prefer a consolidated facility in the West End. Because it offers related services, the Alexandria Health Department, currently located at two sites, would prefer co-location with DCHS. Authorization for this consolidation is all but a done deal, though the specific site isn’t yet publicly disclosed, said Mayor Allison Silberberg.
What the plan calls the “Witter/Wheeler Campus” along Duke Street is home to 15 city and schools properties. As the single largest, contiguous publicly-owned area, it’s long been considered a golden opportunity for what the plan calls “space synergies.” For example, various vehicle fleets, like city and school buses, could share parking areas and maintenance facilities under an alternating work schedule.
City and school officials generally support co-locating or jointly acquiring other properties as well, though details still need ironing out. For example, Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School occupies the first four floors of a six-story converted office building. City staff considered though ultimately rejected various options of what it might put on the top two floors. They couldn’t determine how adequately to separate children from the comings and goings of another public use, said Mignon Anthony, the schools’ COO.
In a separate study, staff will recommend how to reconfigure city hall’s interior layout and department location to streamline citizens’ customer service experience. Council members generally agree that core political activities — council meetings and offices, the city manager’s office — would remain at city hall. But other services, like finance and code administration, might relocate elsewhere, perhaps through satellites.
“I want to make sure that we’re not viewing these departments as monoliths,” said Vice Mayor Justin Wilson. For instance, “we can be a lot more deliberate about how we approach” the use of libraries and recreation centers as “portals for a lot of those other services.”
“I’m very interested to see the creativity [in terms of public-private partnerships] that can come from the private sector being a part of the conversation,” said Councilman John Chapman.
Councilman Paul Smedberg expressed doubt about the new plan’s usefulness, since it lacks a definite plan about city hall’s future.
“We have to start somewhere,” though it’s a “living document,” replied McPike.
Council will vote on the strategic plan’s final iteration at its legislative meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 11.