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Progressive Voice: Arlington’s Space Squeeze Demands New Solutions

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Laura Saul Edwards

Arlingtonians used to say that rising enrollment in our public schools was “a good problem to have.”

The catchphrase emphasizes the drawing power of the high quality instruction and student achievement at APS.

But these days, unprecedented enrollment growth, a shortage of seats and limited land for new school construction pose major challenges.

Fresh thinking and problem solving are needed as we face a space squeeze for schools — and for play space and other recreational needs. Building up — not out — is one solution. And building usable green space on rooftops has emerged as another promising option.

On the plus side, green roofs provide space for recreation and athletics when there is little to no available space for these activities at ground level. Just as important, they provide students with the chance to look at trees, plants and other natural amenities instead of industrial rooftops sprouting air conditioning units.

In this way, green roofs serve an environmental purpose while providing students with landscaped areas that can be used as a teaching tool, recreational areas for athletics and fitness and space for special events and programming.

For instance, in Rosslyn on a cramped urban site, construction is progressing rapidly on the new home of the H-B Woodlawn and Stratford programs, opening in September 2019. With seven floors, this facility will be Arlington Public Schools’ tallest building to date.

These massive rooftop terraces on four levels include one large enough to accommodate the equivalent of three basketball courts. These terraces create more functioning space on this small site with its compressed ground-level athletic field than would otherwise be possible if the new school were simply a multi-story box.

The rooftop terraces on top of the fanning bars of this modern building (picture a spread deck of playing cards) are a radical departure from the large, grassy suburban campus. Currently the programs are located with a traditional school building, full growth trees and acres of space for Ultimate Frisbee games.

But most people involved in reviewing the unique fanning bars design with its innovative rooftop terraces agreed that it made moving to the urban location more palatable. And the move also made space possible for a sorely needed middle school on H-B Woodlawn’s old site.

As green rooftops take hold in design nationwide, architects are learning how to lower the cost while addressing concerns with maintenance and drainage. Green rooftops can’t be the answer everywhere because each project and site is different.

Yet, given Arlington’s scrunch for space, even the most unlikely sites are being snapped up and creatively re-envisioned, often bringing a plus for the environment.

Imagine the old Alpine restaurant on Lee Highway – vacant for eight years – torn down and replaced by a three-story glass-paneled contemporary building for The Children’s School, a non-profit pre-school.

Imagine two secure rooftop green decks, where kids can safely run and play. A tree buffer to the residential area to the south. Open air, sunshine and a revitalized stretch of land.

Under a use permit application recently submitted to Arlington County, three stories would be above grade, with parking mostly underneath and wide drop-off areas at ground level for parents. The building would step back to the rear in respect for the nearby Glebewood neighborhood.

The Children’s School, a non-profit entity for employees of Arlington Public Schools and others, is being displaced from its current location at Reed in Westover, so finding a new home is urgent.

As people recently viewed the architect’s preliminary plans, some wondered if there was a more spacious location. Not in space-squeezed Arlington, said Chris Smith, representing the Children’s School.

“Believe me, we explored every other possible site. This is the only one that worked,” Smith said.

Green rooftops are design solutions that can help ensure new schools will provide much-needed capacity and serve the whole child while making a positive change on the surrounding environment and furnishing recreational space to the community during non-school hours.

Since Arlington will always stay land-locked and land-starved, this is exactly the type of creativity needed as APS enters a hectic period of building capacity for thousands more students in the upcoming years.

Laura Saul Edwards has lived in Arlington County since 1994. A former congressional aide and lobbyist, Ms. Saul Edwards is now a piano teacher and community activist. She was PTA president at Nottingham Elementary School and co-chair of the H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program’s PAC. She serves on the School Board’s Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Projects (FAC) and is an APS 2012 Honored Citizen.

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