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Alexandria City Council approves stadium lights for T.C. Williams High School, despite objections

The T.C. Williams football team practiced under temporary lights in 2010 for the first night game in the school’s history.
The T.C. Williams football team practiced under temporary lights in 2010 for the first night game in the school’s history. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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The Alexandria City Council on Saturday approved a stadium modernization plan for the storied T.C. Williams High School that includes lights for the school’s stadium, despite objections from some residents who contend the changes will bring noise and disruption to an adjacent neighborhood with deep historical roots.

The council’s 6-to-1 vote advances a plan to overhaul Parker-Gray Memorial Stadium, a multipurpose athletic facility that officials say carries a unique distinction: Its football field is the only one at a public high school in Northern Virginia — and the Washington region for that matter — that lacks stadium lights.

The debate over the lights stems from an apparent decades-old agreement between the city and residents in the historically black Seminary neighborhood, where Alexandria razed homes and displaced inhabitants whose families settled there after the Civil War to build the integrated high school in the 1960s, according to accounts in court documents. (The integration of the T.C. Williams football team was famously depicted in the 2000 movie “Remember the Titans.”)

After leveling the neighborhood to build the school under eminent domain, Alexandria agreed to construct 29 homes adjacent to it and the displaced residents had the first pass at buying them. The city also struck a deal with residents, according to the suit filed in Alexandria Circuit Court, that there would be no stadium lights.

Alexandria residents sue city over stadium lights at T.C. Williams High School

“The city made a promise,” said Lars Liebeler, the attorney representing five families in a lawsuit over the lights. “We’re asking the court to enforce the promise.”

Alexandria City Public Schools said the upgrades — which include new restrooms, concessions, a press box and a sound system, in addition to the lighting — bring T.C. Williams’s facilities up to par with its peers in the region. The district said the lack of lighting has in the past forced it to schedule the school’s athletic games “at unusual and inconvenient times.” In addition to football, the facility hosts sports such as lacrosse, soccer and field hockey.

“The Parker-Gray Memorial Stadium will now be able to move into the twenty-first century and our students will get the facility they deserve,” T.C. Williams Principal Peter Balas said in a statement. “These upgrades will create a stadium that is aligned with our vision of creating world-class experiences and opportunities for our students.”

Officials say residents in both Seminary and an adjacent historically white neighborhood are concerned about the noise and disruption that could accompany the installation of up to 80-foot-tall lights. But last week, school and city officials committed to mitigation strategies, including requiring that the school district have control over the sound system and prohibiting its use during practice, directing sound away from the neighborhood and into the stadium bleachers, and approving higher light poles to minimize glare.

The school district also agreed to engage residents in a neighborhood forum regarding the modernization plan, and said it would construct fencing and establish a strong security presence surrounding the stadium to better control entry and exit.

Neighbors concerned about adding lights at T.C. Williams High School’s stadium

“In the end, I’m hopeful and optimistic the mitigation we put in place will prevent some of the neighbors’ worst fears from becoming reality,” said Alexandria Vice Mayor Justin Wilson (D), who voted in favor the plan.

Mayor Allison Silberberg, who lost to Wilson in June’s Democratic mayoral primary, was the lone dissenting vote on the council.

“Adding the lights is a clear breach of a long-standing promise to the African American community, which was already forced by the Alexandria City government in the early ’60s to give up their homes and land, which they had owned outright for over 100 years, many generations, in order to build T.C. Williams High School,” Silberberg said Sunday. “It is a sad and tragic chapter in our city’s history, and as mayor I express this heartfelt apology to the African American community for what our city has done in the past. . . . As mayor I cannot support compounding this terrible treatment and injustice to the African American community.”

Cathy Puskar, a T.C. Williams graduate who represents the T.C. Williams Stadium Initiative Fund, applauded the council’s vote, which came after eight hours of public deliberation. While her group pushed to “maximize utilization” of the lights, she understood the council’s need to institute “reasonable measures” to alleviate residents’ concerns — such as prohibiting their use on Sundays and reducing the hours they can be used Monday through Thursday, along with keeping them in control of school officials.

“We saw yesterday as a really, really great day for our school system and for our city and we look forward to the school board moving as quickly as possible to get those improvements in place so we can have Friday night lights next fall,” Puskar said Sunday.

Stadium lights have been a contentious issue among neighborhood residents for decades, Wilson said.

In July, the Alexandria chapter of the NAACP wrote in support of the Seminary Civic Association’s stance opposing the stadium lights. The letter was addressed to neighborhood group’s president, Frances Colbert-Terrell.

“Segregation, integration, and marginalization have impacted the quality of life for many of the residents who were forced out of their homes where the existing school currently stands,” the letter said. “It is imperative that we do not continue to traumatize this community.”

T.C. Williams football field lights move closer to fruition

The letter continued: “The Seminary Civic Association has spoken, and their opinions should be valued higher than the larger group of stadium light supporters,” the NAACP said. “These residents have made accommodations over the years to be good cooperating citizens. At this time the City of Alexandria is indebted to them for their sacrifices and should not move forward with this section of the modernized proposed plan.”

Liebeler said the effort to fight the proposal will continue, despite the council’s decision. He said the city is defying a verbal contract officials entered into with residents in the 1960s.

“We’re going to take that in front of a court and we’re going to have an impartial judge make that decision about whether that decision is enforceable or not,” he said. “We think it is.”

The school district said work on the project will begin next spring and last seven months.

Moriah Balingit and Debbie Truong contributed to this report.