Students and parents are facing years upheaval in Alexandria’s West End, as the city’s school system is planning on completely rebuilding two elementary schools within the decade.
Alexandria City Public Schools plans to redesign an office building at 1703 N. Beauregard Street to be used as swing space while George Mason Elementary School (2601 Cameron Mills Road) and Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology (3600 Commonwealth Avenue) are completely rebuilt.
Barring construction holdups, a newly built George Mason could be up and running by fall 2026, staff said in a community meeting on Monday night. That means that, at a minimum, the next two years will be spent planning and retrofitting the office building into a school, with George Mason students to transition to swing space in fall 2024. Cora Kelly students would then move to the swing space in fall 2027, while their new school is under construction, and they would move into a newly built school in fall 2031.
“The most aggressive schedule that we have is showing the fall of 2026 [for George Mason students to return],” Azjargal Bartlett, director of ACPS capital programs, said in a community meeting Monday night. “These are anticipated timelines, and if there is any change to the schedule we’ll communicate that out.”
Bartlett said that ACPS is working with the remaining tenants on “mutually beneficial solutions for them to vacate the building prior to the start of the construction,” she said.
The school system is considering staggered dismissal times to minimize traffic between Ferdinand T. Day and the swing space, as well as busing students to the new school.
“We are anticipating that the transportation will be provided to all the students when the building is being used for swing space,” Bartlett said.
So far, $24.5 million has been allocated to the project in the city’s 10-year Capital Improvement Program, with an additional $5 million that is going into the upcoming fiscal year 2024 budget.
Between now and then, a lot of planning and design work with the architect, Perkins Eastman, has to happen, like adding outdoor and playground space at 1703 N. Beauregard.
“We’re still working through that we do not have any options to present at this time,” Bartlett said. “We are in discussions with our design team and once we have more information we’ll provide an update early next year on that design progress for the swing space.”
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Alexandria is experiencing an affordable housing crisis, city officials say, and that means using school property to try to address the crisis should remain on the table.
School officials, however, are reluctant to rush through plans for housing at schools currently set for redevelopment.
City Manager Mark Jinks said at a meeting last night that he still wants the city’s public school system to evaluate possibilities to co-locate affordable housing options on the grounds of schools slated for renovation.
“The most important thing is looking at the site and saying what’s possible and what’s not,” Jinks said. “Every single unit makes a difference.”
At a contentious joint meeting between city and school officials Monday night, school staff were asked to evaluate the feasibility of adding workforce and affordable housing to two concept plans under consideration for Douglas MacArthur Elementary School before the school board votes on a plan on Feb. 6.
Mayor Justin Wilson said that any plan proposed by staff that would negatively impact schools or their construction timelines should be shelved.
“But if we can have some consideration quickly — it sounds like in the next month or two — let’s see what’s possible,” Wilson said.
School Board Chair Cindy Anderson said that she and her colleagues were unaware that the city was contemplating such measures.
“I think we want to have our ducks in a row on this, but we’re not the housing administration, we’re the school system,” Anderson said. She recommended that the board’s work session with council in March be devoted to discussing the issue.
“I don’t think that rushing through some sort of process at this point is going to really help either the city or the schools. I think it would potentially damage and taint any process going forward,” said Anderson.
The issue created controversy last week when a feasibility study for George Mason Elementary School was mistakenly released, and included a four story apartment complex with 60 units on school grounds.
The decision about co-locating housing on ACPS property is ultimately up to the school board — the city council can not lawfully determine what goes on school grounds, City Attorney Joanna Anderson said.
Jinks said that any potential plans to co-locate affordable or workforce housing on school grounds will not have a “transformational” change to concepts that the school board approves down the road. He encouraged the school board to go ahead with their vote on MacArthur on Feb. 6 and said that city staff will be working with ACPS staff to determine if there is any opportunity to explore housing options between now and then.
Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Jr., apologized for the lack of publicly-available information leading up to the discussion. He said that it will be difficult for the school system to approve a concept plan and then alter it to accommodate housing options.
City and Alexandria School System officials want to be clear: there is no plan to build a four-story housing structure as part of the plan to rebuild George Mason Elementary School.
Last weekend, a feasibility study commissioned by ACPS with architect Studio Twenty Seven Architecture, was mistakenly shared with the George Mason PTA. It showed an outline of an apartment complex in the middle of the George Mason baseball field. The study was quickly shared and denounced by members of the Beverly Hill Listserv, which spread it further and created an uncomfortable situation for ACPS administrators.
“It’s still unclear why the consultant the schools use was asked to show a building on the property as an alternative,” Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson told ALXnow. “One of the charts that they did shows this building, and so the superintendent pulled it out of the presentation, but one version of the presentation had been sent to the PTA accidentally, and it got out to the public and everyone went crazy.”
“Everyone’s convinced there’s like some conspiracy, but it looks like it was just something that was explored at the staff level and was dismissed but got out,” Wilson added.
Thursday night’s school board meeting was standing room only. George Mason PTA President Sarah Hoffman, speaking on behalf of the school’s executive board, was one of more than 20 speakers at the meeting. She said that the school system should release all feasibility studies regarding future uses at the school site, and called for a sound process that provides accurate information to the public in a timely fashion and incorporates feedback.
“We want to express concerns with how the initial information being discussed tonight was circulated to our community. An incomplete presentation was circulated and we ask that you release the full study being used by all parties involved and any plans being considered at this time so that the community can have an informed conversation,” Hoffman told the board. “Unfortunately, to-date the process has led to confusion and anger… The feasibility study that circulated without context presents numerous concerns with safety, environmental impact, traffic, parking and the permanent removal of green and recreational space that could occur under this current scenario.”
Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Jr., apologized and said he hated that the study was released. He said that he plans to stress to city staff at an upcoming meeting that the ACPS mission to ensure the success of city students should remain clearly defined. He will also speak to the George Mason community about the issue at the school on Tuesday, Jan. 28 at 6 p.m.
“On behalf of the school division I do want to apologize for that, because that was not the intent. I also wanted to be able to provide our community as well as the board just with some background on how we got to this place,” Hutchings said. “Initially, when we did our request for proposals back in the spring we did not have any mention of co-location. That was not the intent of the feasibility study in the first place. And it wasn’t until about the fall in October that we had some discussions around co-location opportunities.”
“It was a discussion that actually transpired between the city and the schools and in November we developed a group of staff members, so school staff as well as our city staff who met just to have conversations around what are some potential co-location opportunities,” Hutchings added. “Building a new structure is not something that happens overnight… I hate the fact that that powerpoint presentation went out this weekend to our community.”
School Board Chair Cindy Anderson also apologized and said it is still unclear how the study was shared with the public.
“It’s been a little difficult to trace exactly what happened, but I can assure you that nobody was trying to hide anything from the public,” Anderson said. “My colleagues and I were previously unaware that housing was part of the feasibility report we are discussing this evening. The mayor and council members were also unaware that this was part of this feasibility thing.”
John Burke, a representative of the architect, told the board that his firm is currently working through at least 12 different development options at Cora Kelly School and George Mason.
“We’ve been asked to brainstorm,” Burke said. “We have not turned in the final report, or even an interim report at this point.”
Anderson said that the information about housing during added no additional cost to the study.
“I believe it’s time for both elected bodies — the school board and city council, plus Superintendent Hutchings and City Manager Mark Jinks — to discuss specifics about expectations for co-locations on school sites and work on a process by which these services can be prioritized and the way in which all stakeholders will be engaged,” Anderson said. “Please remember that this is a feasibility study and that we’re at the beginning of the process.”
Thursday was the first time that Alexandrian Carol King has spoken before the school board. King attended several public planning meetings on the construction of a new Douglas MacArthur Elementary School last fall and was also surprised that ACPS was contemplating co-locating residential properties on school grounds.
Her eldest child will begin school at MacArthur this fall, and said that developing affordable housing opens the school to threats from residents who might be doing illicit things.
“I was not aware that was something you were considering,” King told the board. “It was kind of a curve ball… Do you guys have a plan? It seems like it kind of came out of left field. Maybe I missed something, but it wasn’t talked about in the meetings in the fall where you were talking about the designs and were seeking input from parents.”
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