School, city leaders address partial project delay during tour of new George Mason Elementary

RICHMOND, Va. — Richmond city and school leaders got a tour on Wednesday of the new school under construction to replace George Mason Elementary School and discussed next steps for dealing with a snag in their plans for one part of the overall campus.

"We’re very excited obviously, this is the product of our efforts to raise the meals tax," said Mayor Levar Stoney after the tour. "This will be…a new elementary school in the east end that will be the home to 750 kids come August of 2020."

7th District School Board Member Cheryl Burke said it will be the first new elementary school for this part of the city since 1967.

"We are elated. Our families are ready to get in there and I’m so delighted that every child will have the opportunity to be in a beautiful, modern facility," added Burke.

But while work is progressing on schedule for the main school building, plans for the rest of the new campus have hit a snag as a ruling by the city's historic preservation body is preventing it from proceeding.

Richmond Public Schools (RPS) had applied for permission with the city’s Commission of Architectural Review (CAR) to demolish the entire structure of the old school.

An aerial view of the current George Mason Elementary School.<br /> Credit: Richmond Public Schools.

An aerial view of the current George Mason Elementary School.
Credit: Richmond Public Schools.

In its place, RPS said it wanted to install "school and community amenities to replace joint amenities displaced by the construction of the new school building." These amenities include two tennis courts, a basketball court, a playground, and a multi-sports field/green space.

An artist's rendering of the amenities that RPS would build on the site of the current George Mason Elementary School.<br /> Credit: Richmond Public Schools

An artist's rendering of the amenities that RPS would build on the site of the current George Mason Elementary School.
Credit: Richmond Public Schools

However, last month, CAR only granted partial approval to RPS. Voting to allow them to demolish the majority of the structure, specifically the portions built between 1936-1979, but denying them that same right for the oldest section of the structure, the building that was erected in 1922.

November decision letter from CAR.

November decision letter from CAR.

"I think the needs of children are a little bit higher on the list than the needs of some bricks that are currently here," said Stoney of the decision, who added it has been appealed to city council.

"We want to give the kids who will attend school here all the amenities I think are necessary for advancing their minds and that play a big role in their growth as well," said Stoney. "That's also providing the green space necessary while going to school. So, it's my hope that the city council gives this a thorough review."

Among the reasoning for denial, was the historic and architectural values of the building.

According to a CAR staff report, the 1922 structure, a 12-classroom building, "was built to alleviate overcrowding in the original 1881 frame building and 1887 brick building on the site." It added that the 1922 building was "a reconstruction of an 1873 building which originally housed Richmond High School, later John Smith School, at 805 East Marshall Street" and used bricks and windows from that school in its construction.

It added that construction drawings indicated that "Charles M. Robinson, architect to Richmond Public Schools from 1909-1930, oversaw the new school construction."

The report said that staff believed the 1922 building is "potentially significant for its association with early twentieth century educational trends in the City of Richmond and with Charles Robinson, a noted architect of education buildings in Richmond" and "a representative example of late-nineteenth century educational architecture."

Original George Mason Elementary School at right in foreground, the 1881 frame section in the middle, and the current (1922) section in background.<br /> Credit: Historic Richmond.

Original George Mason Elementary School at right in foreground, the 1881 frame section in the middle, and the current (1922) section in background.
Credit: Historic Richmond.

The staff report, written in September, recommended RPS "consider all feasible alternatives to the demolition of the 1922 section, including an appropriate new use and rehabilitation, relocation of the structure to a compatible site, or re-sale of the property to an individual committed to suitable rehabilitation or relocation."

The report did acknowledge that there were challenges to rehabilitating the building, including "extensive asbestos and lead paint remediation" and upgrades to "heating, electric, and plumbing systems".

CAR voted to defer making a decision on RPS' request at its September meeting to allow RPS "the opportunity to consider all feasible alternatives to the demolition of the 1922 section, including an appropriate new use and rehabilitation, relocation of the structure to a compatible site, or re-sale of the property to an individual committed to suitable rehabilitation or relocation; and consider preservation of important architectural elements of the building."

In response to this, RPS said, in a letter dated October 11, it did not agree with the decision to delay a ruling and added "any continued deferment of action may jeopardize the City and RPS' ability to provide the necessary green space when the school opens" and that this "would cause RPS to absorb significant operational costs for the school as we provide supplemental activities and programming to meet physical education requirements at the school, while this issue is resolved".

The letter added that neither RPS or the City has a "programmed use" or "sufficient funding" to rehabilitate the 1922 structure. It said that in order to preserve elements of the building, RPS proposed using bricks from the 1922 structure to build fence columns for the new school.

A second staff report, created for a CAR meeting in November when the decision was made, stated in response to the fence column suggestion that "there are other important architectural elements that should be preserved to memorialize the significant history of the building and its association with public education in the City of Richmond."

In response to the concerns about additional costs caused by a delay, CAR staff acknowledged the concerns but added "the Commission raised concerns about the preservation and potential demolition of the school building during the conceptual review of the new school at the November 27, 2018 meeting. The Commission raised the same concerns at the January 22, 2019 meeting when it approved construction of the new school."

The report also responds to RPS' claim that rehabilitating the building would be costly, stating RPS had not "provided a detailed description of the work required and the costs associated with converting the building to a new use and/or rehabilitating it using other funding sources such as the historic rehabilitation tax credit, the City of Richmond Tax Abatement program, or grants."

City Council's public information manager, Steve Skinner, told CBS 6 that RPS' appeal of CAR's decision was filed on December 10. He added CAR now has 10 days to file a response to the appeal and send it to council.

After that, council has 75 days to decide whether to accept or overrule CAR's decision. He added if all three parties agree, that 75-day deadline can be extended.

When asked if the city administration was putting together a "plan B", in case city council did not overturn the CAR's decision, Stoney he was prepared to let the process play itself out.

"Once the process plays itself out we'll get there," said Stoney. "I don't think we need necessarily a 'plan B' at the moment. Like I said, I think the city council's going to do the right thing, give us a thorough review and we'll move on from there."

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