Preliminary design of Lafayette gym worries advocates

Ryan McKinnon

WILLIAMSBURG —Lafayette High School advocates are not cheering now that a firm has been selected to oversee the construction of a long-awaited auxiliary gym at the school.

Instead, they are worried about broken wrists, no storage space and a $2.3 million mistake.

On Tuesday night the Williamsburg-James City County School Board awarded HBA Architecture Interior Design a $166,116 contract to design the auxiliary gym at Lafayette.

"I'm looking forward to getting this finally moving again," School Board Chairman Jim Kelly said at Tuesday night's meeting.

The board had awarded the design contract to HBA on May 10 but learned a week later they had not followed state procurement laws, an error that delayed the process by six weeks.

But even as the board chair breathed a sigh of relief, some Lafayette advocates questioned the choice.

Their reason for concern originates seven miles south of Lafayette – the auxiliary gym at Jamestown High School, which was also designed by HBA. The Jamestown structure was not originally designed to house a gym, it does not have room for bleachers and there is a narrow four-foot sideline between the out-of-bounds line and the wall.

"(The Jamestown gym) reminds me of a church social hall with baskets at each end," said former Lafayette Athletic Director Dan Barner. "It's like they said, 'Let's just throw the thing together.' It is really a shame."

And many in the Lafayette community believe W-JCC is encouraging HBA to build a similar facility at Lafayette.

In a May 3 email to Superintendent Steve Constantino obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, School Board member Julie Hummell urged him not to use the Jamestown gym as a reference point for the Lafayette design.

"We do not want to use JHS as the size for LHS's auxiliary gym. It is too small (not enough room around the court and there was a bad injury as a result)," she wrote.

Constantino replied on May 4: "It was never our intention to replicate the JHS gym. We understand that every building project is unique and cannot be a carbon copy of similar projects."

But Mike Ross, a principal with HBA architecture and director of the educational design studio, told the Gazette on Thursday that when his firm drew up preliminary designs for the gym, the district told them to make it similar to the gym at Jamestown.

"We were asked to do something similar in scope and level of parity to the Jamestown High School gym," said Ross. "They felt it was important for all the high schools to have equivalent facilities."

What Lafayette wants

Barner, who announced his retirement from Lafayette earlier this year, said the auxiliary gym needs to be large enough to host small tournaments and provide much-needed storage space for the drama department.

"I've been trying to get a gym for 17 years," said Barner. "After 17 years, I want to make sure they get what they need at Lafayette."

The preliminary designs of the Lafayette gym, obtained via a FOIA request, show two potential designs, and neither has the space for bleachers or storage space for the drama department.

According to a March 31 email from Ross to W-JCC Senior Director for Operations Marcellus Snipes, the proposed square footage for the Lafayette gym is 7,698 square feet compared to the Jamestown gym which is 6,539. But, not all of that extra square footage is going toward the basketball court. Ross said the firm had to "substantially increase the size of the public restroom."

"We added a little more space around the court at LHS Aux gym because the space was available," he wrote.

Ross also told Snipes the Jamestown gym was not originally designed to house a basketball court. The firm "ended up squeezing a full-size basketball court in there anyway at JHS staff request, but it was extremely tight around the court edges."

Jamestown Athletic Director Kenneth Edwards said he was happy with design for the gym at Jamestown.

"For our purposes it works," Edwards said. "You won't hear us complain about our auxiliary gym. It serves a lot of purposes and we are very thankful for it."

Even so, Lafayette advocates are upset. They want to know why the gym they spent more than a decade clamoring for may be based on a facility not originally designed to house a gym.

"It's disturbing and alarming," said Lisa Ownby, a mother of a Lafayette student and a registered candidate for this fall's school board election.

"We've made it clear — those of us that have advocated — that we don't want what Jamestown has because it is inadequate," Ownby said "There is no room for spectators, and you can't hold tournaments there."

Ownby said she didn't doubt HBA's ability to design an appropriate gym, but she is concerned that in its haste the school district will end up directing HBA to build a replica of the Jamestown gym.

Bambi Faivre Walters, another Lafayette advocate, agreed.

"There really hasn't been a lot of proactive planning; it's been reactive planning. The reaction was based on the parents urging them, but right now (they need to) get a gym done that meets Lafayette's needs," said Walters.

"Just lines on a page"

On Thursday Ross said the plans in the feasibility study should not cause concern. He said they were done with limited information and were based on broad guidelines from school administrators.

Describing the gym in the feasibility study as a "just kind of a what-if exercise," Ross said the design firm will be soliciting input from the district before they begin designing the actual gym at Lafayette.

"There is a lot of information we need to gather before we can start making true design decisions," Ross said.

And Lafayette advocate Kathy Woollum said she had been assured by administrators that the preliminary designs were nothing more than "lines on a page" or "a holding pattern."

Woollum said she is optimistic about those meetings now that Lafayette has a new athletic director in place to speak for the school's needs.

"Now that we have Coach Linn at the helm as athletic director, he knows and understands needs of Lafayette as well as anyone and he can appropriately represent them within the school system and to the architect," Woollum said.

Ownby said Lafayette parent advocates would be keeping a close eye on that process.

"Kathy's plan is to watch this process like a hawk. But things don't seem to be too transparent, so I don't know how we are going to do that," she said.

Woollum said communication between the Lafayette athletic boosters and Constantino had been cut off. She said he told them to direct all their feedback to the Lafayette administration.

McKinnon can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

About the project

Timeline: The goal is for the gym to be built by the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, according to WJCC Senior Director for Operations Marcellus Snipes.

Cost: HBA estimates the total cost of the gym to be $2.3 million, according to Mike Ross, a principal with HBA architecture

Who applied: Seven firms submitted requests for proposal for the design of the gym. HBA beat out Waller, Todd and Sadler, the firm that is designing the new middle school.

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