It takes a village to raise a new school. In Arlington that means running the blueprints by a million stakeholders and pushing through a few split-the-baby decisions.
For two years, Arlington Public Schools has been racing the demographic clock to create a new 600-student elementary school on the campus of my alma mater, Williamsburg Middle School. By carving a new environmentally state-of-the-art learning site from the leafy slopes along North Harrison and 36th streets, planners hope to “set the standard for the next generation of schools in Arlington,” I’m told by John Chadwick, assistant superintendent for facilities and operations. It’s “an opportunity to create a new community.”
I can adjust to the march of time as authorities pave over my old stomping grounds. But execution of the school—which is yet to be named —has stirred up a hornet’s nest among nearby neighbors wary of increased traffic and proposed athletic field lights.
Not to mention the simultaneous controversy over school boundary changes made necessary by the larger, countywide redistricting plan to relieve overcrowding that affects Jamestown, Nottingham, Tuckahoe, Taylor, Glebe, McKinley and Ashlawn schools. That thankless process has been blasted for “ripping up neighborhoods.”
Whatever your standpoint, you can’t fault the system for poor outreach. Wyck Knox of VMDO Architects has held no fewer than 31 meetings on the $35 million school design.
His show-and-tell for the county-level Public Facilities Review Committee last week displayed some cool artists’ renderings. They promise a sleek two-story structure of tan bricks and blue or green trim, slicing fieldstone walls and components of glass and aluminum. The plan includes outdoor classrooms embracing biodiversity, solar panels on the gym (with more possible later), and underground geothermal wells for storm drain management. Trees will be chopped to accommodate construction, but 200 plus will be planted.
Though “crunched for construction time” to finish by September 2015, designers are aiming for “a great sense of place” in the 28-classroom facility, Knox said. That means shelter that is “physical and emotional,” that makes each space a learning space, and that promotes health and civic engagement. “We plan to make it the most efficient building APS has ever built,” the architect said. The work is “on budget.”
Many in the residential vicinity opposed the site in the first place. But they are picking their battles. Gail Harrison, a parent and neighbor directly across the street, has circulated two petitions.
“Most neighbors have supported efforts to create more seats for students, though this will mean construction-related noise and disruption,” she says. But a possible addition of lights on the soccer field “would subject us to adults cheering, yelling, slamming doors and tearing along our streets late into the night.”
Lynn Pollock, an organizer with the Rock Spring Civic Association, added that such lights would “effectively remove our only green area for evening non-scheduled recreation.”
Similarly, a neighborhood conservation plan for traffic abatement at Williamsburg Blvd. and Kensington St.—approved in 2010 before the new school was conceived—“will snarl traffic and make it more dangerous for children and adults to get to their elementary and middle schools, jobs and homes,” Harrison says. It is “being rammed forward at break-neck speed by county transportation officials who seem determined to ignore our concerns.”
Final approval for the design is set for September. More hoops to jump through.