APS Site Planning

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Planning Update from August 21, 2016

by Juliet Hiznay, PRFC Representative for Friends of TJPark

Friends of Thomas Jefferson Park is engaged in outreach at this time regarding the school project that is in design.  Included in that outreach is a survey about outdoor park elements of the design.  Please note that the Arlington School Board timeline is to approve the schematic design for the western parcel of Thomas Jefferson park in October 2016.

A Public Facilities Review Committee appointed by the Arlington County Board and a Building Level Planning Committee appointed by the Arlington School Board  are working jointly on the design for the new elementary school at Thomas Jefferson Park.

Meeting schedules and other information for this project are posted online.  All meetings are open to the public and are usually held in the library at Jefferson Middle School, 125 South Old Glebe Road.  Please come to public comment in you are interested.  The timeline for this project includes a School Board vote schematic design by October 2016.

The School Board has voted to make this a neighborhood school for the overcrowded Patrick Henry Elementary School.  The current Henry building will be occupied by the Montessori program, thereby opening up space for additional students at Drew Elementary School.  A school boundary process will begin in 2018, with occupation of the new school building slated for September of 2019.

Friends of Thomas Jefferson Park has an appointee, Juliet Hiznay, on the PFRC.  She can be reached directly at fotjp@yahoo.com or at 202-352-8982.

It should be noted that several changes have been made to the preliminary design concepts presented in 2015 to the TJ Site Evaluation Working Group.  Additionally, changes made based upon feedback since the BLPC and PFRC began to meet are significant. The most recent presentation made to the PFRC available online is here.

Planning History

On December 3, 2015, the Arlington School Board selected Thomas Jefferson Park as the next site to build an elementary school.  The County Board voted in favor of the proposal on December 15, 2015 after declining to approve the location on January 27, 2015 based upon community concerns.  Although this area is currently used for parking and outdoor recreation, it is impervious surface. The County Board also placed a number of limits on the design and impact of new school construction at the site during its January 27, 2015 meeting, which are reflected in the minutes.

The community first learned that Arlington Public Schools was planning to build a new school at Thomas Jefferson Park in May of 2014.  Although it was a surprise to local residents, park users, and the Thomas Jefferson Middle School PTA, through freedom of information requests, it became evident that APS had been looking seriously at the site since 2012, with several architectural concepts developed that were never shared with the public.

Thomas Jefferson Park is one of the crown jewels of the Arlington County park system, and it offers the largest areas of contiguous and accessible green space in the county.  It is also unique due to its array of recreational opportunities, with a large community center, which has indoor and outdoor tracks, gardens, extensive recreation assets and natural areas within easy walking distance of several neighborhoods.

One important aspect of the site is that a community center, middle school and theater are all housed in the same building.  In the past, this has posed an obstacle to maintenance, renovation or replacement of the building due to the impact of programming and difficulties in coordinating the capital planning process between the School Board and the County Board.

Since 2008, significant improvements as a result of community engagement has resulted in a highly visible increase in park usage.  Not only does the park offer a tremendous array of recreational opportunities, but Thomas Jefferson Park users are of all ages and walks of life. The ease of use and ready accessibility as well as the multitude of recreational opportunities on site, make the site extremely valuable as parkland.

In response to Freedom of Information Act requests, APS released a number of design schemes from 2012, 2013 and 2014 that would have had a devastating impact on the park.  Friends of Thomas Jefferson Park and other stakeholders made it clear that such plans were unacceptable.  Through our efforts, some of the worst schemes have been defeated.  TJ Site Evaluation Working Group final report.

History of Design Schemes

Several schemes were presented to the public in the fall of 2014 as part of the Thomas Jefferson Site Evaluation undertaken by Arlington County. The schemes were prepared under a $4.7 million contract awarded to architectural firm VMDO on September 4, 2014, of which approximately $220,000 was slated to be spent to support the work of the Thomas Jefferson Site Evaluation Working Group.

At particular risk were the multi-use trail, organic community garden, and natural grass fields. A proposal to allow buses to transit over the (now) garden and the trail between the community center and the soccer fields raised a number of concerns about access to the trail during weekdays, pollution from diesel exhaust, as well as pedestrian and bicycling safety moving from one recreation space to another (or chasing after a ball). Re-siting proposals for the organic garden and the community playground were also problematic.  Friends of Thomas Jefferson Park and other stakeholders were able to fend off a number of poor designs.  Friends of Thomas Jefferson Park continues to work the public process to address park- and community-related concerns.

The following is a description of the concept designs released in June 2014.  They are here for historic comparison but the designs are now outdated.

Friends of Thomas Jefferson Park raised a number of concerns about the preliminary design concepts (Concepts A, B, C and D) unveiled in June of 2014.

For example, none of the concepts included a community playground — the plans remove the existing playground, which would be a significant loss of amenity closest to the highest density housing in Arlington Heights (Dominion Arms Apartments) and home to a very diverse population. All of the concepts seriously impacted the Arlington County Fair, and probably would have prevented its being staged at Thomas Jefferson Park, which we have been told is currently the only reasonable location for the fair because it combines the open space with a large indoor space for vendors. None of the concepts adequately addressed parking, transportation access or traffic issues.

Concept A (click to view) is outdated.  This design builds on Second Street South and blocks the lines of sight into the park. This would be totally unacceptable. Doing so creates trapped space on the site, would make it unsafe from a public safety standpoint and the park amenities would not be visible from the street. Concept A routes buses down the park trail between the community center and the athletic fields, creating ridiculous conflicts between trail users and vehicular traffic.  It also eliminates the tennis courts and rebuilds the basketball courts onto the rear of the site north of the building, thus destroying the Thomas Jefferson Middle School Organic Garden. The community playground and numerous trees are also eliminated in this design concept due to surface parking lot construction.

Concepts B  (click to view) and C are outdated.  These designs would build a vast new parking lot on existing recreation space along Second Street South, thereby greatly increasing the lot coverage, and would require rebuilding tennis courts and basketball courts onto a recently redone baseball field.  The middle grass field would then be converted to a baseball field.  Both changes would require additional construction for ADA access.  Current uses of the middle grass field include t-ball, frisbee, kite flying, pick-up games, youth soccer practice, dog exercise, and use as the Arlington County Fair grounds.  These designs appear to eliminate the Thomas Jefferson Middle School Organic Garden. The community playground and numerous trees are also eliminated in this design concept due to surface parking lot construction.

Concept D (click to view) was publicly removed from consideration by the School Board on September 4, 2014, following County Board guidance indicating the impact on trees was too high. Concept D would have required the destruction of a vast amount of green space by taking out the hill, destroying a large number of trees — including a notable tree — interrupting the multi-use trail, building a parking lot on green space, while providing for bus and motorist access from Arlington Boulevard at a location that is prone to high speed (sometimes fatal) accidents near the Irving street intersection.  By paving over the northeast grass field, park users would have lost many recreational opportunities.  Current uses of the hill and field include the running trail, outdoor gym, sledding, t-ball, frisbee, kite flying, pick-up games, youth soccer practice, dog exercise and staging for the Arlington County Fair.  The community playground and numerous trees would have been eliminated in this design concept due to surface parking lot construction.

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