Alexandria neighbors oppose development plan

By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2010

Neighbors of Jefferson-Houston School in Alexandria say that the conceptual plans to redevelop the site are unfair to their community.

The school system has been working on a plan to rework the property, which includes the school, a pool, a community center and possibly the Jefferson Houses, into a mixed-use development. The intent is to take advantage of the nearby King Street Metro station and have a developer build residential and office space on the site to help pay for part or all of the construction of the public facilities.

"They are so anxious to develop this land close to the Metro, but it will fundamentally change this neighborhood," said Damon Colbert, a 33-year-old Cameron Street resident. "They would not dare do this east of this neighborhood, where people appear to have more political clout."

Colbert and about 140 neighbors signed a petition asking the City Council to meet with them about the potential development. The residents are concerned about traffic, lack of community involvement in the planning and loss of open space, among other issues. They are organizing in the project's early stages to make sure they have input in what could be a yearlong planning process, Colbert said.

Leslie Zupan, past president of the West Old Town Citizens Association, said of the plans, "Some people say, 'keep the status quo.' I'm in that camp because they haven't made the case to me that they even need a new school. Others are saying there is nothing wrong with a new school if you can prove it is necessary, but why can't we do it through traditional means?"

Margaret Byess, deputy superintendent of planning and support operations, said, "We value the combination of elements already on the site. . . . The commitment all along was to make this happen in a collaborative fashion," between the schools, city and community, she said.

School officials say Jefferson-Houston, which serves kindergarteners through eighth-graders, needs to be rebuilt to help relieve crowding at other Alexandria public schools. Jefferson-Houston, at 1501 Cameron St., is under enrolled because the school has not met mandatory federal education benchmarks, school officials said.

Coupled with an $11 million bill for annual maintenance on Jefferson-Houston and Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology, and a significant amount of rehabilitation, the school system began looking at rebuilding the two schools, followed by a redistricting process, Byess said.

Because of a lack of public funding, school officials began considering other options. Jefferson-Houston sits on land near public transit that is used by the community, as well as the school, so planners want to take advantage of that, she said.

Estimates show that 673,000 square feet of residential and office space would cover a portion of the estimated $57.2 million public piece of the project. About 1.1 million square feet of development would pay for the cost of the public facilities. If the land holding the Jefferson Houses is included, however, that would lower the project's estimated density, Byess said.

"We don't know exactly what the balance will be between public and private," said Byess, who emphasized that the plans are "not set in stone."

Following direction from the City Council in June, school officials are taking another look at the economic analysis, how to use space more effectively, what kind of private elements are necessary to fully or partially fund the project and other project parameters, Byess said. If the School Board and City Council approve the basics of the project, the officials will start conversations with the community, she said.

"My understanding was that a number of community meetings were going to be held that would be generated by the school division to further discuss the proposals and their ideas," said Vice Mayor Kerry J. Donley (D). He said not holding meetings over the summer "is a lost opportunity."

Donley said information on the plan's financial aspects, as well as various development scenarios, needs to be "fleshed out more" before decisions are made. The rezoning process would take a lot of time, and the council is not "going to initiate the journey until we know specifically what is being requested," he said.

A follow-up meeting in which council members and school officials will discuss the proposal in more detail is expected in the fall.

New Patrick Henry and Cora Kelly elementary schools have been approved for the traditional capital building program.

"Our community is the only community being asked to take on density to fund the construction of a new school," Colbert said. "At this point, that is not a trade-off that the neighborhood appears willing to take."

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