High school continues renovation talks

Nick Stroman

The largest turnout so far of parents and staff made up the fourth meeting to discuss future renovation plans at Washington Community High School Thursday.

BLDD Architects Inc. handed out and displayed five building concepts, reduced from eight previous options, for the community to look over.

The crowd of nearly 200 people included many new attendees, so the architects chose group leader Kenna Jones to make the opening statements to review their progress.

Jones is a member of the executive committee for the renovation plans, a group made up of leaders from brainstorming sessions, which take up the last section of each meeting.

Jones is a 1987 graduate of WCHS and has parents who attended the school, as well.

She has been at all of the planning meetings because she has a 4-year-old child who will be a future student at WCHS.

“I just thought it was important that as a citizen, we present these materials because we’ve been working on it, too, besides the district and the architects,” Jones said.

Sam Johnson of BLDD said consensus items for the project, based on feedback gathered from the last meeting, include: an in-fill approach so all buildings are connected, using Jefferson Street as the front entrance, placing the computer lab and technology in the Commons area and locating teacher offices closer to their classrooms.

Johnson added common themes gathered from meetings included: providing for unmet program needs, such as updates or new construction of band/chorus, locker rooms, science labs and wrestling; making the commons the heart of the building; a drop-off option or reconfiguration of the front door; reusing the Ashbrook building instead of demolition; locating administration offices near the main entrance; and locating band on first floor near the practice field.

“We also got the comments to build the biggest school possible for the least cost. It sounds funny, but that really needs to be at the focus of all these concepts,” Johnson said.

Much of the attention at the meeting turned to the first three building concept options discussed, which included taking out the tennis courts and creating additional parking.

Johnson said architects and the school district have been meeting with the city manager and police chief about the parking lots and crosswalks.

“We could create a forced intersection there for student traffic. Also, by doubling the Wilmor lot, it provides more parking spaces for both the high school and Five Points,” Johnson added.

Police Chief Jim Kuchenbecker said traffic safety at the high school has been an issue for him since becoming chief four years ago.

“This plan would be significant for me, not just as a police chief, but also as the parent of a junior and an incoming freshman,” Kuchenbecker said.

Kuchenbecker said his greatest fear has been the Jefferson Street parking lot crosswalk and how it is not regulated.

“It’s not a recognized crosswalk, but everyone around here knows it’s there. My problem is the new people to the area who would just drive right through and possibly hit a student who doesn’t stop,” Kuchenbecker said.

He added there have been half a dozen times when he has almost hit a student at the crosswalk with his police car.

“They just step off without looking, and they get mad or give me dirty looks when I say something. I’m sure a $75 ticket would upset them even more,” Kuchenbecker said.

He added if the faculty parking lot plan goes through, he would hope staff would lead by example.

The police chief said he also prefers the first building option because it provides safety and security through the in-fill of space.

“No kids would be outdoors at any time of the day. I remember at one point four years ago, we had all doors open during the day, and now there’s none,” Kuchenbecker said.

Option 1 comes with a price tag of more than $22 million.

The first and second options are the same site design, but include different plans for the west gym.

Option 1 removes the concrete bleachers, creating a multi-purpose venue; and Option 2 would leave the bleachers and place remodeled lockers within the existing walls.

Johnson said he believes the original high school building is the most handsome-looking from an architect’s standpoint.

“That’s something I need to know from everyone here. Do we build in front of that?” Johnson said.

Johnson said other options to consider include taking down Ashbrook and making it a two-story addition to plan for student growth beyond 1,350.

“That addition could easily take us to 1,800 to 1,900 students,” he added.

Johnson said people should not rule out a remodeling concept with no new construction either, pointing to projects they have worked on at community colleges in Augustana and Kankakee.

The next meeting is scheduled for Monday, when three options will be presented by the community’s executive committee to the school board.

An options forum Dec. 1 will include feedback from the community to the committee.

A presentation with the final building plan choice will go to the school board for a vote Dec. 8.