Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Jumping the Shark

On Monday, June 4 at 7 :00 p.m. ACPS will hold yet another community meeting on Jefferson-Houston School.  Many substantive questions are still going unanswered, such as how school officials will prevent parents in cars from dropping their children off on N. West Street instead of taking the longer route into the proposed entrance in the interior of the site. 

Without such answers, these community meetings are becoming increasingly stage-managed and pointless, so it's no shock that attendance has fallen off by more than half since January. 

At these meetings, PTA parents now go after anyone who interrupts the consultants' canned presentation to ask questions.  Ironically, few of these PTA parents live near the school and will be affected by the exterior design and layout.  Instead, they come from places like Del Ray and Cameron Station.  The Growler recently learned that one man who states he has lived in the community longer than anyone else actually moved to Maryland in 2009, as he announced on his Facebook page.  His name was added a few years ago to the deed for a family property near the school, which apparently is how he can technically claim Alexandria is his principal residence. 

The process finally and definitively jumped the shark last month, when the issue of crime came up.  A long-time West Street resident asked about the ability to watch for "nefarious activities" through the two school buildings that will face his street, and was shouted down by the husband of the current PTA president for being "out of bounds." 

Why should a discussion about crime and safety be "out of bounds" for a community meeting about a new building in an area where historically there has been copious and well-documented crime around and on the grounds of Jefferson-Houston?  In fact,  prostitution and drugs were the reasons the hill behind the school was leveled more than a decade ago.  Residents stil regularly see suspected drug activity in the neighborhood, especially in the alleys and streets near Jefferson Village. 

The Alexandria Police Department sends its data to a public Web site www.crimereports.com, which gives users the ability to enter a street address and discover what arrests or incidents have taken place at and around the address for the past six months. 

The Growler entered the addresses for all elementary schools in Alexandria and asked to see drug arrests.  Jefferson-Houston has the unique distinction of being the only school with drugs incidents in the last six months on all of its perimeters.  Many schools such as George Mason, Douglas MacArthur, Mt. Vernon, James K. Polk, Lyles-Crouch and Patrick Henry had no such incidents in the surrounding blocks.  Others had only one or perhaps two.

The higher crime rate can be attributed in part to the presence of subsidized low-income housing, especially the Section 8 project at Jefferson Village.  Alexandria police are reporting a recent increase in PCP usage in the neighborhood, and have established that there is drug-related traffic between the Andrew Adkins housing project near Metro and Jefferson Village.  The new Jefferson-Houston School is now planned to be built on the current playing field, in much closer proximity to Jefferson Village than before. 

Click on the school name to see the map of incidents ("Q" indicates drug-related arrests, blue folders signify multiple incidents of drug-related activity).  The reports were run on May 22 and show activities since November 22.  (Crime reports.com only allows access to six months of rolling data.)

John Adams Elementary School
5651 Rayburn Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22311

Charles Barrett Elementary School
1115 Martha Custis Drive, Alexandria, VA 22302

Patrick Henry Elementary School
4643 Taney Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22304

Jefferson-Houston School
1501 Cameron Street, Alexandria, VA 22314

Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology
3600 Commonwealth Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22305

Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy
530 S. St. Asaph Street, Alexandria, VA 22314

Douglas MacArthur Elementary School
1101 Janneys Lane, Alexandria, VA 22302

George Mason Elementary School
2601 Cameron Mills Road, Alexandria, VA 22302

Matthew Maury Elementary School
600 Russell Road, Alexandria, VA 22301

Mount Vernon Community School
2601 Commonwealth Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22305

James K. Polk Elementary School
5000 Polk Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22304

William Ramsay Elementary School
5700 Sanger Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22311

Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School
435 Ferdinand Day Drive, Alexandria, VA 22304

Friday, May 04, 2012

Squeeze Play Averted

On Wednesday night, the Transportation Commission voted on whether to accept the High Capacity Transit Corridor Work Group's recommendation against rapid transit in dedicated lanes on Route 1. 

At a hearing where our neighborhood turned out in force -- against rapid transit on Route 1 as well as other streets in our community -- the Commission not only endorsed the original December 2011 resolution from the Work Group but added new language to ensure connectivity to Fairfax County will be achieved through Corridor B (Duke Street) not Route 1, while acnowledging that Maryland pass through-traffic is a problem that needs to be addressed.

The issue will next proceed to Council.  The successful outcome of this meeting for our neighborhood owes much to three Commissioners in particular, and we thank Kevin Posey, who as Chairman provided leadership and balance; Donna Fossum, who contributed her legal expertise in drafting the final language, and Jesse Jennings, whose loyalty to his old neighborhood remains steadfast. 

Here is the language adopted by the Commission:

"The Alexandria Transportation Commission concurs with the recommendation made by the High Capacity Transit Corridor Work Group in the following Resolution that the Work Group adopted on December 15, 2011:

'Whereas the Alexandria Comprehensive Transportation Master Plan conceptually envisioned the eventual location of high capacity transit in dedicated lanes in the portion of Corridor A south of Braddock METRO Station; and
'Whereas the High Capacity Transit Corridor Work Group was appointed to recommend methods for implementing the Alexandria Comprehensive Transportation Master Plan to City Council; 
'Be it hereby resolved that the High Capacity Transit Corridor Work Group recommends that there be no dedicated-lane high capacity transit on the portion of Corridor A south of Braddock METRO Station. 
'Instead, the High Capacity Transit Corridor Work Group recommends that resources be used to explore the possibility of putting circulator buses/trolleys or other forms of conventional and scale appropriate transit in this portion of the City.'
"After careful review of the high capacity transit options in the portion of Corridor A south of the Braddock METRO Rail Station, the Transportation Commission has determined that dedicated right-of-way transit is not viable on the streets of Old Town.

"The Transportation Commission recommends that City Council explore the expansion of East-West connections between Old Town and the existing METRO Rail Stations as the most effective way to encourage transit use in this area.  Any such connections made must be done with maximum sensitivity to residents’ concerns and the historic infrastructure in Old Town.  The Transportation Commission further recommends that City Council direct City staff to engage in community outreach on this matter and that at least one public hearing be held by the Transportation Commission on any proposal regarding East-West connectivity before any action to implement such is taken.

"While the Work Group considered and ultimately rejected all three proposed 'build' options for the portion of Transit Corridor A south of Braddock METRO Rail Station (i.e., (1) West Street, (2) Patrick/Henry Street, and (3) Washington Street), the Transportation Commission urges City staff to explore additional connectivity from Transit Corridor B into Fairfax County via the Huntington METRO Rail Station, and into Maryland via the Wilson Bridge, and to present all findings to the Transportation Commission and City Council on any potential 'build' options identified."

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Squeeze Play

On Wednesday, May 2 the Alexandria Transportation Commission will meet to review the recommendations of the High Capacity Transit Corridor working group regarding Corridor A (north-south on Washington or Route 1). 

This is an issue of great concern for our community, especially beleaguered home owners who live on N. Patrick or N. Henry Streets and are already prey to vibration, noise, cracks in their homes' foundations, and safety hazards from pass-through traffic.  They also face the potential seizure of the much-needed parking lanes for dedicated bus rapid transit.

Word is that a certain Council candidate wants to override the unanimous findings of the citizen member Work Group. Why? Because Fairfax County may have later through-traffic transportation needs.

The Work Group concluded that Corridor A should not be pursued and no dedicated lanes provided. It seems Fairfax County has decided to terminate its Richmond Highway bus rapid transit at Huntington Metro.

It's bad enough that Alexandria citizens are once again being prepared on the sacrificial altar to appease Fairfax County commuters, but are we also getting the squeeze play from Arlington?

The candidate's recently published campaign finance disclosure form indicates he's received money from Arlington County's transit mouthpiece, Chris Hamilton.  Mr. Hamilton's official title is Commuter Services Chief for Arlington County's Department of Transportation , and he is also the author of CommuterPage Blog

So why in the context of City politics do Alexandrians matter less than our non-voting neighbors? 

When Planning Commissioner Stew Dunn is asked the question -- often in joint meetings -- the pass-through traffico Planning Commissioner typically says no.

"No" is a good answer.  Perhaps the best answer.


The Growler received an E-mail on Sunday from Justin Wilson about this blog posting.  Here is the Growler's response to Mr. Wilson:


I am sorry we are having a “Rashomon” moment; that you believe I am being untruthful.  We talked about two issues on April 18:  the first was the High Capacity Transit Corridor Working Group’s December 2011 resolution that there not be dedicated transit lanes on Route 1, which you supported.  The second was a proposal which was then being discussed by Commission members to remove references to Corridor A from the Master Plan, since the resolution advised against the dedicated lanes. This you told me you did not support.  

As we discussed the removal of the Corridor references from the Master Plan, you asked a rhetorical question: without such an option in the Plan, how would you be able to respond if Fairfax County suddenly decided in the future to run light rail to the Alexandria border?  To me, this was the lynchpin moment. 

Supporting the original Working Group resolution is one thing.  Opposing an amendment to the Transportation Master Plan to reflect the fact that the Working Group said no to dedicated transit lanes effectively overrides the Working Group's determination of non-feasibility.  It keeps Corridor A in play for some future date. 

If the language relating to Corridor A stays in the Master Plan, the City could come back at any time and insist on revisiting the idea of dedicated lanes for buses or streetcars on N. Patrick or N. Henry Streets. This means neighbors will continue to face threats to the integrity of their homes’ structures, their physical safety, their peace and quietude, and their quality of life. 

I recall that you also asked me if I had looked at the City’s 10-year CIP budget lately, presumably because there is no room there for a Corridor A extension.  But any short-term dearth of resources to pay for this does not provide long-term protection for our community.  After all, you and Rob Krupicka successfully revived the issue of a Potomac Yard Metro station.  Our community strongly supports an infill station in the Yard, and continues to applaud your political courage.  We appreciate your stewardship – and only ask for reasonable consideration for our neighborhood.  

The permanent barriers to a Corridor A’s extension involve more than funding.  They include not only physical limitations, but also effects that will directly impact Route 1 residents’ daily living situations.

If I am wrong and you now support removing Corridor A south of Braddock Metro from the Plan – as well as supporting the original Work Group resolution – I will be happy to retract.

Perhaps now is also the time to clear up a discrepancy that has puzzled the neighborhood for many months.  Attached is a file which is provided as supplemental information for Wednesday's Transportation Commission agenda.  This document, dated June 1, 2011, lists the City's long range transportation priorities.  Near the top of the list, #3, is "Construction of extension of CCPY transitway south of Braddock Road to connect to King Street station."  Why make Corridor A a priority six months before the Working Group finished its deliberations, especially when the Working Group's opinion is not to proceed with dedicated lanes on Route 1?


Monday, March 19, 2012

1984 and All That

Earlier this year, the Parker-Gray Board of Architectural Review established a work group to review and recommend changes to the detailed design guidelines that govern our neighborhood. (Disclosure: the Growler serves on this committee.) The design guidelines for Parker-Gray and the Old and Historic District are virtually the same, save for a provision about financial hardship cases that applies only to our district.

Except for a dwindling number of old-timers mostly born and raised in Alexandria, few readers have lived as long in Parker-Gray as the Growler has. It will be 32 years come May, and the Growler remembers well the stormy events of 1983-84, when the neighborhood became a local historic district governed by a Board of Architectural Review (or “BAR”).

So much time has passed that many have completely forgotten that this measure was hotly disputed, that it divided the community, and was by no means unanimously supported either by residents or politicians.   The boundaries of the proposed district, too, shifted a number of times.

The controversy started in May 1983, when the City Council acting on a recommendation from then-City Manager Douglas Harman — voted to consider expanding the City’s historic district. An article by Washington Post reporter Michael Martinez noted that in 1974 the Council rejected a request to extend the historic district, and further that in 1977 the community successfully fought a plan to place the neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places and then again defeated proposals to extend the historic district.

In April 1984, the Council voted unanimously to apply historic preservation regulations to the neighborhood, but as the Post noted, the neighborhood’s black residents were divided on whether this was necessary, quoting some who were strongly opposed and others who favored the changes. 

Interestingly, the Council voted to add other areas of Alexandria to the Old Town Historic District, including parts of the waterfront and blocks on both sides of N. Washington Street south of the Beltway but rejected an attempt to include a six-block area bounded by West, Cameron, Henry and Princess Streets on the grounds that a majority of the people there did not want to be included. Then, as before, the blocks north of Princess and west of Henry were not included either, despite the presence of the historic “Colored Rosemont” area at the corner of Madison and West.

To calm the dissension raging in the community, Vice Mayor Jim Moran presented a compromise to exempt current homeowners from BAR approvals. The only power the board would retain would be to control height of new structures and demolition of old ones. If ownership changed, the exemption would end.

However, a month later the tenuous compromise unraveled when the City Attorney ruled that the exemption for existing homeowners was illegal under the Alexandria City Charter. The controversy started afresh, and the Post quoted Councilman Donald C. Casey saying: “it’s one of these neighborhood battles that, whatever action we take, it’s going to leave a group of people disgusted.”

Neighborhood leader Roger C. Anderson stated that the review board is “too stringent” and that requiring residents to meet its standards would result in “a lot of unnecessary time and expense.” His group advocated for a “special preservation district” which would be regulated by Council, not the BAR. In addition, Anderson called on Council to push the boundaries of Parker-Gray from the railroad tracks, First Street, Columbus and Cameron.

Seeking middle ground again, Council agreed to designate Parker-Gray as a “special preservation district” that would exempt the neighborhood from control by the BAR but directed Planning and Zoning to set up a citizens task force to set standards for the area by the fall of 1984. A planning official told the Washington Post that the group could recommend that Council impose “all of the rules of the Old Town Historic District or none of them.” If no standards were agreed upon by November 1, the special district would be eliminated.

As could be expected with anything this contentious, Post reporter Leah Latimer wrote in the summer of 1984 that neighbors “are at odds over what the area’s historic character is and what measures should be taken to preserve it.” She noted that “Unlike neighboring Old Town, most of the streets in the Parker-Gray district are lined with modest shingle, brick and stucco row houses, more common to an inner city than a historic Colonial district.”

When the special committee gave its findings to Council in September 1984, according to the Post “they recommended that alterations to existing buildings and new construction in the district be based on compatibility with surrounding structures rather than stricter architectural codes used in Old Town.” Even then, some residents were not satisfied.

Alexandria’s politicians remained perplexed. “I’m not really clear about what people want,” Planning Commissioner T. Edward Braswell Jr. said in a meeting. Mayor Charles E. Beatley, who conceded he was “never that enthusiastic “ about the June compromise, said that Council would be likely to take some action by the November deadline, but “maybe it’ll be [something with] not too much substance, but they’ll come up with something.” Planning Commissioner Wiliam B. Hurd suggested another alternative, which was to set up a Parker-Gray planning district with an advisory board.

At last, in October 1984 Council took its final vote, moving to designate the neighborhood as a historic district but with dissension among its own ranks. Connie Ring was opposed by Charles Beatley, who said he did not want to force a decision on residents if they did not approve of the proposal . Beatley was supported by council members Lionel Hope and Donald Case, while Ring was allied with Robert L. Calhoun, Margaret Inman and Vice Mayor Patsy Ticer – thus revealing a split across political parties as well as race.

Interestingly, the final Post article regarding the birth of the Parker-Gray Historic District notes that “the designation [as a historic district] would impose less stringent architectural controls on the Parker-Gray area than those in force in the historic district that governs the look of fashionable Old Town area” [emphasis added].

So readers, what happened to the provision that we would be regulated less stringently than Old Town? 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Credibility Gap

The Growler was perusing Alexandrianews.org's site yesterday and discovered that two of the three representatives of School Board District A -- which includes our neighborhood -- are proposing to cut funding for all International Baccalaureate activities in ACPS, including the fledgling program to be initiated at Jefferson-Houston.

According to Alexandrianews.org, last Friday night Alexandria school board members submitted their adds and deletes to the FY 2013 budget, which will be finalized at a School Board hearing on Thursday, February 23.  Both School Board chairman Sheryl Gorsuch and member Mimi Carter have proposed deleting or "pausing" IB activities across the board in ACPS.  It appears from the article that their delete was submitted to balance their recommended budget add which would restore intersession funding for schools like Mt. Vernon Community School. 

Both Ms. Gorsuch and Ms. Carter are from Del Ray so Mt. Vernon is their backyard school, so to speak.  Alexandrianews.org implies that they are allied with District C's Ronnie Campbell and Blanche Maness, who are also concerned about intersession cuts at schools such as Samuel Tucker in the West End.  However, it was only Ms. Gorsuch and Ms. Carter who suggested the IB cuts to balance reinstatement of intersession funding.   

Many in this neighborhood have remained mildly skeptical that a change in curriculum at Jefferson-Houston would really be the academic salvation of the troubled school, which has not achieved AYP under No Child Left Behind since Rebecca Perry was Superintendent. 

But having allocated a whopping $40 million for a new Jefferson-Houston building, why would these School Board officials even consider slashing the one curriculum-related change that has at least pulled a few parents from the neighborhood (especially the Del Ray wedge section of the district) into the school again?

The actions of Ms. Gorsuch and Ms. Carter raise questions once more about what is the purpose of the new Jefferson-Houston School.  If they supported capital funding for a new building but are comfortable with having no viable curriculum alternative or even a real path for improvement for the worst performing elementary school in Alexandria, is Jefferson-Houston really being rebuilt to accommodate a coming enrollment tsunami? 

The Growler wonders if, instead, it is being built as a warehouse to remove "difficult" kids from George Washington Middle School so that school performance can rise and Del Ray can reclaim the historic school as their backyard junior high school.  Readers may remember that Cora Kelly School in Arlandria is also slated to have a PK-8 regime implemented in the future, complete with a new building.  Once book-ended like this on the north and south ends, dandy Del Ray will ultimately have a large contingent of the low-income minority children removed from GW.  That also serves the interests of the District B "Northridge" parents who are zoned to send their children there as well. 

If this is the case, then it's understandable that Ms. Gorsuch and Ms. Carter don't care about curriculum improvements that require further investment and consume resources that would otherwise available for their own school. 

Food for thought ...

The School Board must still act to approve the budget adds and deletes on Thursday, so nothing is a done deal yet.  But this latest development illustrates how the demure masks of concern for all Alexandria children worn by School Board members are slipping.  It also raises the question once again about whether anything we are told by ACPS and its elected officials on the topic of Jefferson-Houston can be trusted.

Besides what we were told about the transformative powers of a new IB curriculum, we were also told that much of Jefferson-Houston's problems stemmed from leadership turnover.  The implication was that this trend would cease under new Superintendent Morton Sherman. 

Then, after five years as Jefferson-Houston principal Kim Graves was suddenly transferred to the ACPS central office last summer and in December 2011 surfaced over at Minnie Howard.   

This was followed by the abrupt departure this month of Stephen Wilkins, the "CEO" of Jefferson-Houston, who wore multiple hats in his brief career at ACPS and is now history.  One may assume his appointment and his unique position were part of an attempt to change (or appear to change) the governance of the school, which conceivably could be considered a remediation measure under No Child Left Behind.  All that this churning seems to have done, though, is to create more doors that revolve faster than ever before at the school.

The community is currently in the midst of discussions about the new Jefferson-Houston school design, which will be some 50% bigger in square footage than the old school.  The building will be designed to accommodate over 700 students and we've been assured it will definitely fill up even though enrollment is currently only at 433, with most of the recent increase due to the addition of middle school classes. 

And if there is no curriculum change, and no gimmick left to give prospective parents enough hope to want to give this school a try, will the new Jefferson-Houston's capacity ever be utilized?  

Friday, February 03, 2012

Weekend Update

Jefferson-Houston Meeting Monday (February 6)

ACPS will hold another meeting to discuss design of the new Jefferson-Houston school on Monday, February 6 from 7:00 to 9:00 PM in the school's multipurpose room.

The burning question for the neighborhood is whether ACPS really believes that a scanty 15 minute at the last meeting and perhaps two hours at the upcoming meeting are sufficient to reach consensus on the design of a new and much bigger school in an established neighborhood.  

Second Arrest in Lenny Harris Case

The discovery of Lenny Harris's body in a Ft. Washington, Maryland well over the past weekend, months after his disappearance, has triggered a tide of arrests in the last few days.  Earlier this week, Linwood Johnson of Prince George's County was arrested on murder charges, and today we learn that a 20-year old, Ivan Newman of Waldorf, Maryland, has also been charged. 

Living the Small Life

The Growler recommends a new exhibition of African-American dollhouses at the Alexandria Black History Museum.  Longtime Parker-Gray resident Sharon Frazier and Linwood Smith constructed more than a dozen buildings and rooms – most inspired by real places in Alexandria – in miniature. This exhibition runs from February 9 through May 1.

The two artists, both lifetime residents of Alexandria, began working together on their collection in 1994, combining their talents and drawing on their memories of places and people in Alexandria. Mrs. Frazier, a retired registered nurse, developed skills in miniaturization while Mr. Smith, a retired automotive mechanic, used his skills as a craftsman to construct dollhouses to scale. They first exhibited at the Alexandria Black History Museum in 2008 and the Growler found the dollhouses utterly charming.

New models include include the Carver Nursery School (the former American Legion building), the Robert Robinson Library, and the Hayden Photography Studio. Several of the buildings from the earlier and very popular exhibition also return, including a barbershop and hair dressing salon, a medical building, an attorney’s office, and a florist, all patterned after actual businesses in the Parker-Gray community.

An opening reception will be held on Thursday, February 9, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., and guests will have the opportunity to meet Mrs. Frazier and Mr. Smith. The reception is free and open to all. Those wishing to attend are asked to RSVP by calling 703.746.4356.  The Alexandria Black History Museum is located at 902 Wythe Street. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday News Bombs

We live in interesting times, readers. Take a look at some of the breaking news from the last few days ...


On January 23, the board of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA)  elected a new chairman and vice chairman.  Derek Hyra will serve as the new chairman, replacing Melvin Miller who has served since 2000, while Merrick Malone will fill the vice chairman's spot. 


Alexandria police were called yesterday to an abandoned home in Ft. Washington, Maryland as Prince George's County law enforcement officials investigated a tip about a body found in a well.

According broadcast news reports, it will take some time for local police to shore up the well, which is sited in a remote location, so the body can be retrieved and identified.

News reports and the presence of the Alexandria police suggest that these might be the remains of missing activist Lenny Harris, whose car was found last year in PG County after his disappearance.

Revolving Door

Alexandria City Public Schools announced yesterday that Jefferson-Houston Chief Executive Officer Stephen Wilkins will be leaving soon to take another job.

Mr. Wilkins, who wore multiples hats at ACPS -- including Transformation Officer for T.C. Williams High School and Project Director for the Total Compensation Review -- will serve as Chief Operating Officer at the DeKalb County, Georgia school district.

Curious how ACPS officials blamed constantly reshuffling leadership at Jefferson-Houston for the school's academic woes under former Superintendent Rebecca Perry but have the same turnover problem on their hands now. Readers will remember that former J-H principal Kimberly Graves also departed last year, taking a post in the ACPS central office.


ACPS Chief Financial Officer Jean Sina announced his resignation at Tuesday's School Board meeting, telling them he had accepted a position with the City of Alexandria to help implement an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system.

However, Mr. Sina then sent ACPS staffers a letter informing them of his departure due to health issues which he blamed on an allegedly hostile work environment and issues with his supervisor, Deputy Superintendent Margaret Byess.

The Growler has no idea what to make of this. Could Mr. Sina's departure have anything to do with recent reports about lax controls over ACPS capital expenditure processes which have already cost two unnamed ACPS employees their positions? And is it ever a good idea to blast your former boss publicly as you are walking out the door?

The Alexandrianews.org article reports that the City is now reconsidering its job offer.