Alexandria, VA

It was a busy week in Alexandria. Here are some of the highlights.

Governor Ralph Northam and U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visited Alexandria this week. Northam stopped by Pacers Running in Old Town, and afterward met with Cardona, Mayor Justin Wilson, National Education Association of the United States President Becky Pringle and Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane at Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School. Cardona was at the school as part of his “Help is Here” school reopening tour.

On Monday, demolition started at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, and Alexandria City Public Schools says that the completion date is still on schedule for the new school to reopen the school in Jan. 2023. In the meantime, MacArthur students will continue to use the old Patrick Henry Elementary School as swing space.

There was big news for Alexandria nonprofits this week, as the Spring2ACTion fundraiser raised $2.5 million and broke last year’s online giving record.

There were also 682 votes in this week’s poll on outdoor dining and takeout. We asked whether the city should keep its expanded restaurant offerings after in a post-COVID environment. An overwhelming majority of 84% of votes cast (576 votes) want businesses to enjoy the same level of latitude; 13% (89 votes) said some modifications should be made and just 2% (17 votes) want businesses to go back to pre-pandemic operations.

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Have a safe weekend!

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The day has finally come for Douglas MacArthur Elementary School.

On Monday, members of the community and Alexandria City Public Schools leadership watched as a demolition crew started tearing down the World War II-era building.

Lisa Porter lives across the street from MacArthur, and watched the demolition from her front yard with a group of neighbors. Porter’s two children went through MacArthur, and she has been involved with the school for 15 years.

“We are thrilled to finally see this happen,” Porter said. “We started hearing about this when my son was in kindergarten, and now he’s in college.”

School Board Chair Meagan Alderton said she would never forget making the “emotional” decision on MacArthur’s fate.

“Man, oh man, was it worth it,” Alderton said. “Because we are moving forward, we are excited. And I can’t wait to have this brand new building and have our teachers and our staff and our families be allowed to have what they deserve. It’ll be amazing when this place is a memory and we have new building up here.”

ACPS Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr., said construction is on schedule to reopen the school in Jan. 2023. In the meantime, MacArthur students are using the old Patrick Henry Elementary School as swing space.

“I’m sorry that our students and our families were not able to be here because of the COVID restrictions,” Hutchings said. “But this was a wonderful occasion. It was a long time coming and we’re so excited for the next chapter of Douglas MacArthur.”

Design-wise, MacArthur’s three-level “Forest” plan was chosen last year. It is currently set back from Janneys Lane, putting classrooms at the rear of the building and providing a view of nearby Forest Park.

City Councilwoman Amy Jackson was also there. Last month, Jackson made an impassioned plea for movement on construction.

“I’m very excited,” she said. “The community engagement has been amazing. It’s going to be an exciting time for an exciting school.”

MacArthur Principal Penny Hairston said that the demolition was a long time coming.

“There is a rich legacy here, and this is very exciting,” Hairston said. “It’s a very emotional thing to see this happen.”

https://twitter.com/DMPrincipal/status/1386676161313378305?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Etweet

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Alexandria City Councilwoman Amy Jackson argued with members of the School Board and Alexandria City Public Schools staff at a budget meeting last night (Wednesday) over construction of the new Douglas MacArthur Elementary School.

Jackson, who is running for reelection, lambasted the school system earlier this week on Facebook with a one minute video. In the video, Jackson stands outside MacArthur wearing a face mask with the words “Your Vote Matters” printed on it, raises her left hand questioningly and then says: “March 1, 2021. Almost a year and no construction has started at MacArthur. When is it going to happen?”

Jackson wrote that the project is a ticking clock for the community, that Council was told demolition would start last month, and then made impassioned comments at Wednesday night’s joint City Council/School Board meeting on the budget. She said it’s up to the school board and ACPS to field concerns from the community on social media, and that she’s tired of answering their questions on the issue.

“My issue is the communication,” Jackson said. “That’s it. That’s my issue, the communication because whatever your answer is, it cannot be any worse than not hearing anything at all.”

While the project is in development, MacArthur students are using the old Patrick Henry Elementary School as swing space.

School Board Chair Meagan Alderton said she did not appreciate Jackson’s comments, and said that she does not engage on social media because it is not the “real world”.

“Maybe we all need to reconsider how we behave as elected officials on social media,” Alderton said. “You all have direct channels to the School Board. You have access that other people do not have. Use that, as opposed to blasting our staff and our School Board on social media. I don’t find it appropriate, and I don’t find it fair.”

Alderton continued, “Unfortunately, this was a budget session about the combined funds budget, which is focused on social, emotional and academic learning. And we had to deal with this. That’s a problem for me.”

ACPS Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr., said despite delays over easement concerns with Dominion Energy, that construction is on schedule to open the school in Jan. 2023. Fence panels were erected this week at the property, and ACPS staff will have its pre-construction meeting with the city on Friday. Additionally, asbestos abatement at MacArthur starts next week, and clearing the building is a process that can take weeks before demolition can happen.

Hutchings also said that ACPS communicated project updates to the MacArthur community in a Jan. 26 school advisory group meeting, and on Feb. 11 in a school-wide newsletter.

“When we talk about being on time, we’re talking about the delivery of the new school,” Hutchings said. “That is the main concern that we had from the school’s point of view. And that’s been the main concern of the community thus far. With all the work that we’ve done with having our swing space at the old Patrick Henry location, we know we have to be out of that space for students to arrive in January of 2023.”

A member of the advisory committee, however, told ALXnow that it has not met with ACPS since late last year and that the Jan. 26 meeting did not happen. Still, the representative said that the group was aware of the 2023 completion date.

“We’ve been provided many dates throughout this process,” the member told us. “The advisory group requested updates via email multiple times over the last six months and those requests went unanswered for weeks or longer.”

The member continued, “And since the school email update was drafted by a principal, not the central office, it was only distributed to parents who receive school communications. It did not go to those signed up for ACPS updates related to this project or to the advisory group who was simultaneously requesting updates.”

School Board member Ramee Gentry said it was important to keep misinformation from being spread.

“The other issue I have and I think we have to be cautious of is spreading misinformation as (elected officials),” Gentry said. “The information that was shared (by Jackson) was not accurate.”

School Board Vice Chair Veronica Nolan said that Facebook is a tool used by upper middle class residents, and that it fosters inequity.

“One third of our students’ parents do not speak English, and 63% of our parents are from low income backgrounds,” Nolan said. “Should I as an elected be jumping every time an upper middle class person wants to speak? Am I supposed to be a slave to the tool? Instead I want everyone to have access, and that is (through) public hearings, transparent meetings that are recorded such as this one, the website, newsletters (and) the ACPS blast.”

Photo via Amy Jackson/Facebook

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It wasn’t your usual first day back to school. Instead of waiting for their students to arrive bright and early, Alexandria City Public Schools started the 2020-2021 school year virtually.

“We are all in the field of education because we love kids, we love people, and going into the virtual plus model is a challenge for us because we primarily we like to make those connections and being face-to-face,” said Dr. Seazante` Oliver, the new principal at George Mason Elementary School. “(W)e won’t be able to get those hugs and those high-fives on the first day of school, and to be able to see those excited faces and smiles standing out front as we greet our families, and having just come to grips with that.”

Thank you to everyone who shared photos of their children for our first day of Virtual PLUS+!

Posted by Alexandria City Public Schools on Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Unlike last spring after in-person school was cancelled due to the pandemic, attendance will be tracked with its VirtualPLUS+ program and students will be graded on their assignments — just like a normal school year.

Oliver, who has worked at George Mason since 2012, is one of four new principals at ACPS, including Loran Brody at Charles Barrett Elementary School, John McCain at Jefferson-Houston PreK-8 IB School and Penny Hairston at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School.

Hairston, a former assistant principal at James K. Polk Elementary School, considers the her teachers and administrators to be a family of sorts.

“My theme for this year is ‘better together,'” Hairston said. “Even though we’re apart, and it’s kind of cliche, but we are better when we’re working on one accord, and working for the purpose of our children.”

Brody, a former principal at Takoma Education Campus PK3-8 in Washington D.C. for the last five years, said that support from the Barrett community has been strong.

“It’s definitely challenging and it’s definitely different,” Brody said., adding that his school has a testing team to fine tune how tests will be administered to students.

All day, Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr., jumped around Zoom calls to check in on students.

“We know this year will be different and it does not change the fact that we are all committed to each of you by making sure you are learning and growing, reaching your academic goals, and getting all the support you need to have a successful school year,” Hutchings said on social media.

https://www.facebook.com/acpsk12/photos/a.281772705295865/1828126753993778/?type=3&theater

Photo via T.C. Williams Minnie Howard Campus/Facebook

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Not long after approving a new school zoning change, the Alexandria Planning Commission unanimously approved the design for the new Douglas MacArthur Elementary School.

Much of the discussion and debate about added density was focused around the density concerns at the start of the meeting, but several neighbors spoke up with concerns raised throughout the process about how the larger school and facilities could impact the surrounding neighborhoods.

Lisa Porter, a nearby resident, pushed for Alexandria to require the installation of a traffic light at a nearby intersection that will turn from sleepy residential crossing to a junction leading towards the redeveloped school. The city agreed to return within six-12 months of classes starting at the school to evaluate the traffic patterns and determine whether a new traffic signal needs to be added.

Other nearby residents said they were concerned about increased recreational use of a nearby field.

Jack Browand, director division chief of the Department of Parks and Recreation, said the use should be mostly consistent with current use of the park. The field will be no larger and is designed with use for those 10 and under only.

“Community use there today will continue,” Browand said. “We expect it to be similar to what we saw with improvements at Jefferson-Houston.”

Browand said that could mean some increase in drop and play activity, but there was no lighting on the field for extended evening use.

The main fight among Planning Commissioners was the lack of a net-zero energy policy that had been touted earlier in the building’s development, and the Planning Commission mostly backed Planning Commissioner Stephen Koenig in requiring the net-zero policy be worked back into the project.

Ultimately, the Planning Commission unanimously approved the project before headed to the City Council later this month.

Image via ACPS

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The coronavirus pandemic has put some of Alexandria City Public Schools’ plans on hold — like the redevelopment of T.C. Williams High School — but the fully developed plans for the modernization of Douglas MacArthur Elementary School are still moving full-steam ahead.

In the new plans, the current building from 1943 will be demolished and replaced with a new elementary school. The new school will be three stories with a synthetic playing field and outdoor play areas.

“The proposed school will allow for up to 850 students, faculty and staff, community meeting space to replace the existing school building for approximately 650 students,” ACPS said in its application. “Currently, up to 100 faculty/staff members are planned at this school.”

At the Planning Commission meeting on Tuesday, September 1, ACPS is scheduled to request a special use permit to demolish the existing building and construct a new school — requiring permits for additional density for a public elementary school, a permit to exceed the maximum number of parking spaces permitted, and an indoor and outdoor recreation facility and community center, and a modification to the rear yard setback.

If approved, the new school is currently scheduled to open January 2023.

Images via ACPS

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Morning Notes

Sheriff Makes Statement on Death of George Floyd — “This event is a tragic reminder that we, as a law enforcement officers, must do more to hold each other to the high standard of conduct that is expected and demanded by those we serve. We cannot stand by and remain silent when unacceptable conduct by our peers occurs, no matter how minor or major it is.  We must be better for ourselves and our community as lives depend on it.” [City of Alexandria]

Beyer Says Trump Unfit for Office — “The President is inciting violence against the journalists who are showing everyone what is happening at significant personal risk, and against Americans broadly. Trump is unfit for office, and his divisive words make this situation more dangerous.” [Twitter]

ALIVE! Provides Food for 1,060 Families — “We sent 1060 families home with produce eggs and shelf stable groceries today because of your support!” [Facebook]

ACPS Hires Three Principals — “Today Alexandria City Public Schools announced the hiring of three new principals for the 2020-2021 school year. Dr. John McCain will be the new Head of School at Jefferson-Houston, Mr. Loren Brody will be the new principal at Charles Barrett, and Ms. Penny Hairston will be the new principal at Douglas MacArthur. Learn more about them by clicking the links in the comments below.” [Facebook]

DASH Distances from Wraps2Go After Owner Makes Racist Tweet — “We do not support any ideals that promote division, discrimination or racism. We can confirm that we have no ongoing projects with Wraps2Go and will not be doing business with them in the future.” [Facebook]

Fire Chief Congratulates New Firefighters — “Recruit School 50 officially completed their initial training and will begin reporting to their assigned stations tomorrow. Because their graduation ceremony has been postponed, Fire Chief Corey Smedley visited to take questions and give them words of encouragement.” [Facebook]

Tenants and Workers United Advises Arlandria Residents on Rent — “Today we were meeting carefully with more than 100 members of Presidential Greens and New Brookside to follow the next steps to get justice in their homes in their apartment complex in these times of crisis we are in.” [Facebook]

New Job: Part Time Concierge — ” The Concierge will be greeting potential residents, families, visitors, managing both external and internal calls, taking and communicating messages. The Concierge provides an overview of community information to those inquiries in support of the marketing and sales efforts.” [Indeed]

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In a candid discussion on Facebook last night (Thursday), Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson outlined some of the largest impacts COVID-19 could have on Alexandria citizens and the city government.

How the outbreak could impact plans for schools, economics, and the health of the community were the top issues in Wilson’s “living room town hall”.

With $56 million less in preliminary estimates for the budget than was originally planned, Wilson said nothing was off the cutting table.

“Nothing is sacred,” Wilson said. “Nothing is off the table. Nothing is untouchable. We will see impacts to the capital budget and operating budget. One of the bigger projects is the rebuild at MacArthur [Elementary School]. My guess is, given where we are in the project, that would be a project we want to continue to proceed. However, we’re going to have to look at everything. If there’s a school project affected in the near term, probably going to be the rebuild of Minnie Howard.”

Those financial estimates are based in large part on financial estimates for business closures, which Wilson said is only likely to become direr.

“We are going to lose a lot of businesses in our city through this situation,” Wilson said. “The federal CARES Act is helpful, but won’t be enough. For several, revenue has gone down to zero, which makes payroll and paying rent impossible.”

Acknowledging the risk of coming across as callous, Wilson said the city needed to start preparing for how to help the city’s commercial tax base recover.

“We are looking at how we see around the corner,” Wilson said. “We need to prepare for the recovery and how we bring back commerce in our city. We’re going to have a lot of work ahead.”

For now, though, the number of confirmed cases in Alexandria continues to rise, currently sitting at 67 cases.

“The challenge with testing numbers: this is a picture of time,” Wilson said. “Because of the delay in testing and the incubation period, this is reflecting folks who were infected quite a while ago. We’re going to continue to see that before we see things get better. If you believe the models, we’re still several weeks off from the peak.”

Wilson said every expert he’s talked to has said Alexandrians should expect that number to continue going up. The state is putting together new models for the spread of the disease with the University of Virginia, Wilson said, which should be released early next week.

“This is reflecting infections that happened two weeks ago in some cases, because of the incubation and several days of lag in test results,” Wilson said. “We won’t see the impact of social distancing for a while now.”

In the meantime, the health department is interviewing each positive case and doing contact tracing to determine who else those people came in contact with and making sure that they track down and notify those folks, Wilson said.

Those with medical experience can help by volunteering with the Alexandria Medical Reserve Corps. Other organizations throughout Alexandria could also use help, and volunteers able to sign up either at Volunteer Alexandria or on the city website.

On a smaller scale, Wilson said many local residents have been using the stay at home order as a chance to get more gardening done. Wilson warned that yard waste collection has been suspended, meaning if residents want to dispose of those weeds they’ve pulled up they’ll have to do so by composting.

“When we have the ability to restart that we certainly will but right now we’re encouraging people to set up backyard composting to deal with that,” Wilson said.

Wilson also noted that because more people are staying at home, the city is seeing much larger amounts of trash being set out on curbs.

Living Room Town Hall

Posted by Justin Wilson on Thursday, April 2, 2020

Staff photo by James Cullum

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City Manager Mark Jinks says that his proposed fiscal year 2021 budget will be deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and predicts that proposed capital investments will take a hit.

“There will be notable changes in the budget, probably I would suspect capital investments,” Jinks told ALXnow. “We’ve got projects related to city facilities, school facilities that we could do differently. Maybe we talk to Arlington about how the Glebe Road Bridge could stay up as it is for another year. Maybe it can’t.”

That could mean also mean postponing a renovation of City Hall and the construction of the expanded T.C. Williams High School campus.

The plan to construct Douglas MacArthur Elementary School is still on track, but when asked about the T.C. expansion, Jinks said, “We’ll see.”

Jinks added, “We know that next year we’ll have revenue losses, because once we get through this pandemic, and then they start to ramp up, businesses will reopen and people will get comfortable about spending again, and then we’ll get back to our normal revenue total.”

On Saturday, the city declared a state of emergency over the pandemic. There are four positive cases in the city and one Alexandria resident infected in New York City.

The city manager’s proposed $2.1 billion, fiscal year 2021-2030 Capital Improvement Program covers city and school system improvements, including the $122 million waterfront plan, the eventual renovation of city hall, $7.5 million for bridge repairs and refurbishments, $17.6 million to support Metro’s capital improvements and $30.5 million toward flood mitigation along the waterfront.

“The dollar total of the budget is going to need to change substantially,” Jinks said. “There’s a new reality. Hopefully, in a couple of months, everybody has taken really proper precautions, sanitized as best we can and don’t spread it, hopefully, contain it within that timeframe. In the meantime, the four functions of city government — police, fire, the jail and emergency communications are all operational and we’re all taking precautions.”

City council on March 11 capped the real estate tax rate for this year’s budget at $1.155 — potentially a 2.5 cent tax increase for residents. That means they will be unable to raise taxes above that amount in this budget cycle. City Council will adopt its budget on April 29.

On Wednesday night, the Council directed Jinks and his staff to prepare suspending the city’s dining and transient lodging tax penalties.

Mayor Justin Wilson has been in city government for more than nine years, and has talked with his regional counterparts about comparing the economic impact of COVID-19 to federal sequestration and the 9/11 attacks — put together.

“It’s absolutely surreal. I mean, this is something that we never imagined,” Wilson told ALXnow. “I think we imagined it, but just watching it play out in real time, it’s just been… Sometimes I feel like it’s a nightmare. And then, you know, you wake up.”

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The Alexandria School Board unanimously voted Thursday night to advance the “Forest” conceptual design for the new Douglas MacArthur Elementary School.

After more than a year of community meeting and planning, Alexandria City Public School planners are now feverishly working with architect DLR Group to make last minute adjustments, including adding a small community recreational space co-located at the school, before the concept goes to the city council for approval next month.

The school system is in a race to meet the construction deadline of opening the school to the public in Jan. 2023, during which time hundreds of MacArthur students will use the old Patrick Henry Elementary School as swing space.

“Yay, we’re going to build a school,” School Board Chair Cindy Anderson said to applause from her colleagues after the vote.

The tiered three-level Forest design is set back from Janneys Lane, and puts classrooms at the rear of the building, providing a view of nearby Forest Park for students. The Forest option was chosen over the “Y” option, which situated the school closer to Janneys and had student recreation areas in the rear of the school.

Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Jr., said that the approval of the concept plan is far from the last step in the approval process before construction can begin. The final design will be submitted for approval this fall.

“It’s so important for us,” Hutchings told the board. “This is definitely a milestone for the work that we’re doing with Douglas MacArthur, but it’s not by far the last thing we’re going to talk about, and there’s a lot more that we’re going to talk about in terms of the schematic design that occurs after this process.”

The building will also have to adhere to the city’s Net Zero policy, meaning that it will have to generate as much energy as it uses, with geothermal water tanks and solar panels. This will be the first “Net Zero-ready” school in Alexandria.

MacArthur was built in 1943 to accommodate students of parents working in the Torpedo Factory during World War II, and became part of the city school system in 1947.

ACPS Chief Operating Officer Mignon Anthony said that the city opened up the height requirement at the site, which would allow it to go to four floors for future expansion — a controversial prospect given that the existing one-story school will be going to three stories. For now, she said, the school board will only have approved of a concept that will be subject to change.

“I think the interior of a building will evolve as we decide on all of the adjacencies for classrooms and where the corridors are and those types of things,” she said.

While the concept approved on Thursday night did not include the co-location of affordable or workforce housing on the site, as promised by Hutchings last week, staff are working to add a small a community recreation center.

“The co-location that’s going to happen on the site is primarily on the recreational side,” Anthony told the board. “And DLR has been instructed to calculate a square footage of a community-standard space in front of the school that is accessible from the outside for the community to use, and we don’t know how big that’s going to be.”

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