The Alexandria City Council voted 6-1 Tuesday to move forward with the design phase for an All-City Sports Facility, a plan that has been in the works for two years.
Council members approved $300,000 in city financing for the project. They also added a condition: that 75 percent of the private financing for the project must be in hand before planners can go to bid for construction.
The estimated $11.7 million facility would be built at the 14.8-acre Joseph Hensley Park on Eisenhower Avenue, west of Cameron Run Regional Park. Plans call for a stadium with a lighted, artificial-turf field that could be used for football, soccer, hockey, lacrosse and other sports; diamonds for baseball and softball; seating for 4,000; restroom and locker facilities for men and women; and 300 parking spaces.
The plan is a revised version of an earlier, $17 million proposal that included a $5.5 million eight-lane running track. Space is available in the plan to add an indoor facility in the future.
Planners had decided against including a track because of space constraints, but supporters noted that the new T.C. Williams High School, currently under construction, will have a six-lane track.
Funding for the project would come from public and private money, and the facility would be available for use by schools and other groups as well as by the general public. Included in the plans approved by the council on Tuesday was a request that the Alexandria Capital Development Foundation proceed with forming a plan to raise $5 million in private money for the project.
Construction of the facility could begin as early as next fall, and it would open in September 2008.
Supporters of the project said the lighted artificial-turf field would enable T.C. Williams to play night football games at home for the first time since the school opened 38 years ago.
When the school was built, officials struck a deal with neighbors who did not want the disruption of bright stadium lights in the neighborhood. As a result, T.C. is the only Virginia AAA Northern Region school that does not play night games at home.
"Our hope would be that we would be able to play almost all of our sports at the All-City Sports Facility," said former mayor Kerry J. Donley, T.C. Williams's athletic director. "The superior artificial-turf surface is going to make that a lot easier for us."
But City Council member Andrew H. Macdonald (D) had pushed for postponing Tuesday's vote, in which he would be the lone dissenter, saying he still had questions about the proposal.
Macdonald questioned the wisdom of pouring so much money into one project when fields all over the city need improvement. Before the vote he said he was worried that private funding would not come through. He also objected to the decision to eliminate the track from the plans and said he was concerned that the facility would favor football and male athletes to the detriment of female athletes and other sports.
"Who's going to get first dibs on using this field?" he asked in an interview. "Is this a football-only thing primarily for most of the year?"
Macdonald's concerns, outlined in a letter published in The Washington Post last week, elicited vehement criticism from proponents of the project.
"It will absolutely accommodate sports for both boys and girls, men and women," said former council member Claire Marie Eberwein, chairman of Alexandrians for an All-City Sports Facility, a citizens group formed in 2003 to promote the project. "We would never approach a project like this in any other manner."
"Council member Macdonald is just ill-informed," Donley said. "The All-City Sports stadium will be gender-friendly. We're going to have better conditions for all our teams -- especially girls' teams," he said, adding that the artificial-turf field, which can be used more than natural grass, would be an improvement for field hockey, lacrosse and soccer.
Some city residents also oppose the project and the financial investment it would require. Carolyn Merck said she does not think so much money should be spent on a sports facility at a time when many residents are being hit with higher property taxes.
"This fancy new thing with 4,000 stadium seats" was the pet project of a few people but was not what most Alexandria residents wanted, she said. "It's too much money for something that provides a very expensive benefit for too few people."
Merck also questioned whether instituting Friday night football games was a good idea when some area school systems are considering doing away with them because of safety concerns. "Night football is just not a good thing," she said.
But Donley said that night games are not the main reason for building the center. "The All-City Sports stadium is not about night football. . . . It's really about providing a superior surface to play our games in a situation where a lot of our fields are being overused," he said.
Elements for the facility came from ideas solicited from residents and officials; Hensley Park was chosen from four potential sites.
In May 2004, the City Council approved $100,000 for a comprehensive study of the project's feasibility. The $300,000 that was approved was money already included in the city's capital improvement plan.
The project will need to undergo further public review and council approval, including a special-use permit.