Front Page  Archives Search

Neighbors object to school plan
St. Patrick's wants to develop former Foxhall mansion site
(Published February 6, 2006)

Special to The Common Denominator

If there is one thing residential neighborhoods in the District loath, it’s the thought of more traffic in the neighborhood. What many residents would rather see more of in their midst is quality schools.

And though residents of Colony Hill in Northwest Washington agree on the high quality of education at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School, plans for a new middle and high school at 1801 Foxhall Road will also come with more cars, and not everyone is happy about it.

After hearing statements from the school’s headmaster, members of the Friends of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School and opponents of the school’s expansion plans, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3D decided during its monthly meeting Feb. 1 to give the two sides more time to negotiate before a vote. A special meeting has been scheduled for Feb. 16.

The commission plans to decide its position on the issue before a Board of Zoning Adjustment public hearing to judge the secondary school plan on Feb. 28.

"We feel more work needs to be done on this plan prior to its submission to the BZA," said Terry Straub, a Colony Hill resident who spoke on behalf of the opposition. "We’re talking about a major transformation of the Foxhall area."

In addition to a middle and high school, St. Patrick’s plans to build a theater, gymnasium, playing field and underground parking on the site. About eight acres have been set aside to be sold and developed into 28 single-family homes, which would help mitigate the costs of construction.

Despite St. Patrick’s plans for offsetting traffic -- which include carpool incentives, shuttles and busing programs -- some residents remain skeptical. Some residents who spoke at the meeting, held at Sibley Memorial Hospital’s Ernst Auditorium, suggested that the proposed school of 440 students and 100 faculty members is too big for an area that already suffers from traffic congestion and dangerous intersections.

"If they approve the school, they should not give them a blank check on traffic," said Robert Avery, president of the Foxhall Community Citizens Association.

Since construction of the school may not begin for a number of years, during which traffic patterns could change, Avery suggested that the school be required to resubmit its traffic plan before breaking ground.

"An educational program with the depth and breadth that St. Patrick’s envisions on the Foxhall campus requires a certain enrollment – certainly more than 300," said Peter Barrett, St. Patrick’s headmaster.

He described the high school as small by "any standard" and pointed out that the private secondary schools that most St. Patrick’s elementary school students move on to now have a higher enrollment on average.

The new high school is expected to have 80 students per grade and 60 each in seventh and eighth grades, Barrett said. The school’s growth would be staggered over four years, starting with students in seventh through ninth grades and adding a grade each year.

Residents who challenged St. Patrick’s traffic plan said they liked the school’s policy of requiring student drivers to be part of a registered carpool, but wanted more specificity in other areas like busing.

Terry L. Armstrong, St. Patrick’s chief financial officer, said school officials are exploring joint busing with other schools in the area, but he couldn’t say for sure that it would materialize. "We have every incentive to do it, and we will make every effort to do it," he said.

Laura Griffen, who said she lives near the proposed school site, blamed neighborhood traffic problems on commuters using local roads as shortcuts.

"You’re saying because commuters are clogging our roads, then we have to say ‘no’ to schools. I don’t think that’s right," she said.

Members of the Friends of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School arrived at the meeting wearing large green buttons with the name of their Web site. The group of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School parents purchased the 17-acre Foxhall Road property in April 2004 from the Eugene B. Casey Mansion Foundation, which originally sought to build a mayoral mansion there.

The site’s location adjacent to wetlands and national parkland also raised concerns from the Friends of Whitehaven, an organization aimed at preserving public access to parkland. Kent Slowinski, a landscape architect and member of the organization, presented a detailed summary of recommendations to reduce the school plan’s environmental impact, including measures to help preserve the pristine dell located on the property and improvements to stormwater management.

The Friends of Whitehaven were in the forefront of blocking plans to build a mansion for D.C.’s mayor on the site, which led the Casey Foundation to sell the plot to St. Patrick’s.

Kate Fralin, a media relations consultant for St. Patrick’s, said talks with Slowinski had taken place prior to the meeting and that his criticism came as a surprise.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator