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VMDO Architects selected to design city schools reconfiguration project

The proposed reconfiguration and renovation of Charlottesville’s Buford Middle and Walker Upper Elementary schools is taking the next step after a delay of more than a year.

The design phase, which will be led by locally based VMDO Architects, is a key step in the project as it will determine the cost of adding sixth grade to Buford, moving fifth grade to the elementary schools and converting Walker into an early childhood education center.

An initial presentation along with cost estimates are expected in June. At that point, the City Council and the School Board are expected to discuss how to move forward.

The city recently awarded VMDO the contract for design services. The $1.47 million contract includes an updated capacity study and programming documents for each site, as well as three different conceptual designs.

The city issued a request for proposals in December 2019 after the council allocated $3 million for planning and design services and started negotiating the contract in February 2020. Those talks stalled during the pandemic but were restarted late last year.

An update on the project is expected at Monday’s council meeting. Last week, School Board members also requested information about where the project stands.

Board Chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres said she is thrilled that the project is moving forward.

“This part of the process has been really, really long and drawn out for a variety of reasons really out of our hands,” she said. “… So we’re all really excited to hear that that piece is rolling.”

VMDO’s proposal includes many public presentations to hear feedback on proposed designs. That public outreach could start in early May.

The conceptual design phase will include updates to the School Board and project group meetings as they work through the space requirements of the plan, capacity constraints and other design considerations, according to the proposal.

The city and the architects already have begun assessing the school buildings.

“Our firm is a Charlottesville business and is mostly comprised of Charlottesville residents with a lot of people that have kids who have gone through the school system, are in the system or will be, so it’s very near and dear to us,” said Wyck Knox, a VMDO architect. “We are specialists in the design of K-12 facilities, so to be able to contribute to our own community and bring our expertise to bear here for our community, our neighbors and our children is pretty special.”

With clients across the state and all along the East Coast, VMDO has experience with virtual public engagement. Locally, the firm conducted the design and feedback process for the renovation and expansion of Crozet Elementary all virtually.

VMDO is planning to work closely with the city and the school division during the process, especially on the question of price and when potential funding would be available. The current proposed CIP includes $50 million for the project in fiscal year 2025.

A 2017 growth and capacity study from VMDO estimated that the reconfiguration plan could cost between $55 million and $80 million. The School Board decided to move forward on the project in December 2018 following the capacity report and other community listening sessions as a way to address equity issues and enrollment growth.VMDO has worked with the city school division on a number of projects over the years, includinga series of smaller modernization projects at the elementary schools that started with Clark Elementary in 2017.Larson-Torres said she’s been pleased and impressed with the firm’s previous work with the division.“They were always very thorough in their presentation,” she said. “I’m excited that it ended up being them. I feel like they know our buildings and our city really well.”The City Council will hear about the project and review conceptual designs in June, according to the proposed timeline. During that presentation, the council will “review preliminary understanding of likely cost ranges and lay out a process to ‘get to yes’ by January of 2022,” according to the proposal.A decision on the conceptual design is expected in August, leading to the schematic phase, which would be a more traditional design process, as seen in other school construction projects.The schematic designs, which outline the general design of both buildings, will go to the School Board and council in January. If approved, VMDO will move on to design development, and construction bid documents could be ready as soon as September 2022, per the proposal.That all assumes the City Council signs off on the funding. At recent meetings, councilors and some School Board members have supported looking into levying an additional general retail sales tax, not to exceed 1%, with the new revenue going toward school construction. To do so, the city would need approval from the General Assembly, as well as voters by way of a referendum, according tostate code.Reconfiguration has been discussedon and off since 2008, with the Great Recession and pandemic complicating the timeline. Officials have said the project would be transformative for students and help to address persistent achievement gaps and equity issues.The project would be the division’s largest construction undertaking since Charlottesville High School was built in 1974.


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