by Mark Lieberman
Current Newspapers correspondent
(Republished with permission from the July 8th edition of the Northwest Current. Download the newspaper here.)
The $65 million renovation of Murch Elementary is going forward following a [July 1] presentation that drew a warm community reception, following resident protests about a previous version of the plans last month.
Construction at the 4810 36th St. campus is scheduled to begin in June 2016, after several rounds of concept approvals and other logistical matters, and wrap up in time for the 2018-19 school year. The D.C. Department of General Services filed its plans with the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts a day after meeting with community members about the latest proposal.
Plans for the renovation include creating new “buried,” or underground, spaces for the cafeteria and media center; a garden along the south portion of the campus on Davenport Street; 46 underground parking spaces; more flexible classroom spaces; and more room for outdoor playground equipment.
The new building will be two stories high, just like the existing one, Department of General Services representative Sarah Hasselmann said at the meeting. The goal is for the new Murch building to be certified gold for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design by the U.S. Green Building Council, she said.
This latest design moves the underground cafeteria to the northeast corner of the property, allowing room elsewhere on the site for a basketball court and other unstructured playground space. And the parking area will now be out of the way of entrances that students are likely to use.
The General Services Department, which handles construction of city buildings, has not yet decided where instruction will take place during the work.
John Paty, co-chair of the Murch School Improvement Team and a parent of two current students, said the design plans are moving forward in accordance with his organization’s requests, but plans for the school’s 620 students during construction are uncertain.
Swing space during project still at issue
“The largest question mark for the Murch community, not only for parents but also for instructors and community members, is the question of swing space,” Paty said. “Where will [it be] and what will the students be doing during the construction?”
Swing space options under consideration include the Capital Memorial Church of Seventh-day Adventists at 3150 Chesapeake St. and the adjacent city park, according to a representative at the meeting. Swing space on school grounds is also a possibility, general services spokesperson Darrell Pressley told The Current. But those negotiations are ongoing.
“We’re still working aggressively to make the decision in a timely fashion,” Pressley said.
The Department of General Services quickly pulled together [the July 1] meeting to present the updated design plan before submitting it to the Commission of Fine Arts on Thursday [July 2]. If the department had failed to meet with the community before July 2, the proposal would have had to wait for the next fine arts meeting in September.
A principal concern for residents at the prior meeting related to the National Park Service’s ownership of nearly half of the Murch property. The federal agency traditionally restricts what can be done on its land, preventing construction of buildings and playgrounds or even placement of temporary classrooms.
During the June presentation, project representatives said they didn’t expect the Park Service to allow playground space or buildings on its land. Accordingly, the entire expansion would have had to take place within the property owned by the city, they said.
But at [the July 1] meeting, the representatives said that after meeting with Park Service officials they learned there are more options for the land than they originally thought. The updated design plans include more than 16,000 additional square feet of outdoor playground space, acquired by pushing a proposed addition closer to Davenport Street and taking advantage of more of the park service land.
Concerns remain among community members, some of whom worry that even the expanded school won’t be able to accommodate the rapidly expanding neighborhood.
Nimmi Damodaran, a former Murch parent who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said she doesn’t think there will be enough teacher parking, and she worries that teachers’ voices aren’t being heard.
“Teachers are often forgotten in these discussions,” Damodaran wrote in an email. “Murch is a good school because of the teachers there.”
But Damodaran was also encouraged by the recent progress. “I am pleased with the current iteration of the concept that they presented,” she wrote. “The last time was not great.”
Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh, whose children went to Murch, sat in the front row at the meeting and said afterward that she’s hopeful the community is happier with these new plans.
“Since it has flexibility within the footprint and the overall design of what they’re aiming at, I think that it offers opportunities for the community to say whatever else they might think,” Cheh said after the meeting. “I was kind of pleased overall.”
North Cleveland Park advisory neighborhood commissioner Malachy Nugent, also a member of the Murch School Improvement Team, said moving forward with the current plan is better than continuing to fight the details.
“I’m pleased to see that many of the community’s concerns have been addressed in this latest version of the plan,” he wrote in an email. “This is an iterative process, and we’ll continue working closely with DGS, DCPS, and the community to make sure the final result is one that will serve our community’s needs for another 85 years.”