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Planning Commission endorses new private elementary school on North Washington Street

424 North Washington Street, image via City of Alexandria

A private elementary school has gotten the Planning Commission’s endorsement on its plans to move into 424 North Washington Street in spite of concerns at a public hearing that the busy street traffic could make it dangerous for students.

The Potomac Crescent Waldorf School is planning to move into the former daycare facility at the corner of Oronoco Street and North Washington Street this September after getting moved around across a couple locations in Old Town. Paul Nary, Director of Administration, Marketing and Communications at the school, said the school has a current enrollment of 55 students but hopes to grow to 155 over the next few years.

The recommendation for approval was unanimous on the Planning Commission, though several speakers in the public comment portion of the meeting voiced concerns about the school having pick up and drop off on Washington Street.

According to the staff report, pick-up and drop-off would run for a 10-minute time period with cars utilizing five spaces on North Washington Street. School staff members would meet their children at the vehicles during the drop-off period and accompany them to the school and walk them back to their cars in the afternoon.

Nearby residents, however, said they were worried

“I can tell you as someone who walks his dog on that stretch of street four times a day: this plan is going to be a disaster,” said George Best. “During the hours that they propose drop off and pick up, the north side of Oronoco is packed. Those lanes are filled. So to make use of the parking space, you’re going to have cars stopped in the middle lane, that’s going to create danger. Even if you don’t have cars stopped there, you have people pulling out of pick-up and drop-off zone into high speed or heavy traffic.”

Paul Dueffert said he frequently drives on Washington Street and said the school’s proximity to the busy street puts children at risk.

“[Washington Street] unlike any other street in Alexandria,” Dueffert said. “When I’m a commuter driving on it, I don’t look for children. I don’t look for four-year-olds. I don’t look for fourth graders. Is there any other K-5 elementary school that has pick up and drop off on a thoroughfare like Washington Street? This traffic plan is an invitation for U-turns. It’s an invitation for children coming across the street. It’s scary. I’m not saying that as a neighbor, this isn’t NIMBY. I’m a commuter but I don’t want to hit a kid. This needs study. This is a big deal. This is Alexandria saying it’s okay to put a full elementary school on Washington Street and I’m worried for myself as a driver.”

Planning Commission members, however, noted that drivers should always be on the lookout for pedestrians no matter what street they’re on.

“I have no qualms with the concerns that Washington Street is too wide and often driven on too quickly,” said Planning Commissioner Melissa McMahon. “What I struggle with as a planning commissioner is I believe in making the community I want to be living in, and I don’t want a community where people don’t drive down Washington Street looking for children. I want everyone to be looking for children on every street.”

McMahon also noted that there are at least five schools in Alexandria either right on Washington Street or less than a block away, and said the elementary school use isn’t fundamentally different in this regard to the pre-school that preceded it.

After Planning Commission approval, the school heads to the City Council on Saturday, April 23, for final review.

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