Autumn on Lake Audobon

Autumn on Lake Audobon
Autumn on Lake Audubon, Photo by Alison Kamat

Thursday, October 27, 2016

New County proposal calls for public schools in high-rise buildings.

The following article is re-printed in its entirety from the Annandale VA blog.  It reports Fairfax County's proposed policy plan amendment to put schools in high-rise buildings.  Of special note is the paragraph we have highlighted noting schools could be co-located "with other public uses, such as a library or a recreational center."  Could we see an FCPS school in the Town Center North government complex?

The public hearing for this ill-conceived and unvetted idea is November 1 at 4PM at the County headquarters.  

 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Proposed county policy would allow urban schools in high-density areas

Bailey's Upper Elementary School opened in a converted office building on Leesburg Pike.
The Board of Supervisors will hold a hearing Nov. 1 on a new policy to allow the development of “urban” or “vertical” schools in high-density areas or on parcels of limited size.

The policy change would also amend the Comprehensive Plan to allow the “co-location of schools with other public uses, such as a library or a recreational center,” and the “co-location of different levels of education and other types of programs in one structure.” The co-located entities would then be able to share facilities such as the cafeteria, gym, or auditorium.

In addition, the policy would permit the adaptive reuse of buildings, such as an office or commercial building, to be used for schools, early childhood education programs, and distance learning.

And because urban schools and schools on smaller lots won’t have as much land as traditional schools, the policy would allow converted rooftops and underutilized surface parking lots to be used for outdoor recreation.

The policy change is of particular interest in Mason District, which has overcrowded schools and a lack of land available for new buildings.

The new policy was hammered out over the past several months by the Fairfax County Planning Commission’s schools committee with input from Fairfax County Public Schools staff and school board. The Planning Commission endorsed the new policy Sept. 29.

“We’re not abandoning traditional school design,” said planning commissioner Timothy Sargeant (at large). “What we are doing is creating a new tool in the toolbox.”

The policy is aimed at “schools in activity centers where there is no land to build traditional schools,” said David Stinson, of the Facilities Planning Branch in the Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ). Activity centers include Bailey’s Crossroads, Seven Corners, Tysons, Reston, and the Route 1 corridor.

The language in the plan calls for schools to have outdoor recreation space, Stinson says. “We’re not going to build a school without recreation space.”

The policy change is needed, the DPZ staff report states, because the existing plan language doesn’t provide flexibility for siting schools in urbanizing areas. The high cost of land in more dense areas is also an obstacle to the traditional school design.

Bailey’s Upper Elementary School in Seven Corners, which opened in fall 2014 in a converted office building, is considered a model for the type of urban schools that would be facilitated by the new policy.

The Mason District Council of Community Associations plans to discuss the proposed policy at its Oct. 26 membership meeting. Clyde Miller, secretary of the MDC and president of the Holmes Run Valley Citizens Association, is urging local community groups to oppose it.

By allowing schools in “surplus office buildings, in commercial areas, with outdoor recreation space confined to garage rooftops, and school sites reduced in size to the minimums allowed by the zoning ordinance,” Miller says, “the proposed policy threatens the quality of future public school facilities.”
Observers note there are numerous concerns with the Policy Plan amendment.  

First, unlike the rest of the County's Comprehensive Plan which is a suggested guideline, the Policy Plan is legally binding.  

Second, there are problems with high-rise buildings being used as public schools.  Comments by parents of students at Bailey's Upper ES to the Annandale blog note:
  • There is no outdoor PE provided for the elementary school students.  
  • There is no room large enough for a school assembly with all the students attending.  
  • The lunch room is so small, many lunch sessions have to be provided to feed all the kids.  
  • And it appears that in the event of a fire or fire drill, there is no space around the building for students to be evacuated.  Students must cross a busy street to evacuate the building.
Aside from those concerns, one wonders if the existing school districts would have their students poached to fill out the new schools.  Elementary schools that cannot provide outdoor PE are substandard.  One also wonders how Fairfax County can exempt itself from Virginia code for school buildings.

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