Press Club

APS relaunches Career Center expansion project after delaying it due to cost overruns

The Arlington Career Center (via Arlington Public Schools)

Arlington Public Schools is ramping up planning work to build a new school and parking garage at the Arlington Career Center site.

A group tasked with developing the project from 2018-2020 has reconvened and will be working quickly to flesh out the project before the School Board reviews designs this spring.

Planning documents indicate APS envisions building a new, 5-story Career Center along S. Walter Reed Drive that would provide a modern space suited to the 21st-century career and technical skills taught inside.

APS is working on two plans: a “base” plan for a $170.5 million, 260,000-square-foot building for 1,795 students, and an “alternative” plan for a $153 million, 225,000-square-foot building for 1,345 students that is designed to accommodate a future expansion.

Building next to the current ACC building (816 S. Walter Reed Drive) will minimize disruptions and lower costs, according to APS administration.

“One of the things we learned through the last process is that building around an existing high school while the students are in there is cost-prohibitive,” said Lisa Stengle, the APS executive director of planning and evaluation, in a January planning meeting.

ACC houses college and career-readiness programs as well as programs that help recent immigrant students pursue their high school diploma and provide job training for special education students and support for teen parents.

In 2018, APS launched an expansion project to add up to 800 seats to the Career Center, and designs were being finalized in the spring of 2020 when the pandemic hit. The School Board removed the project from its 2021 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) because it was $84 million, and then $34 million, over budget.

At the time, the board told the school system to focus on smaller renovations to meet rising enrollment. Since then, completed renovations to the Columbia Pike Branch Library created more space for students, and APS is spending around $31 million to add more seats to the current ACC building over the next three years.

But now APS is looking to build once more. The School Board directed Superintendent Francisco Durán in October to add the project to the 2023-32 Capital Improvement Plan, set for approval in June. If approved, the project will go to voters in November as a School Bond referendum.

APS expects to start construction in December 2023 and finish the building in December 2025 and the entire project in 2027.

The graphic below shows how the site will change through the project. (The current ACC building is in light gray, the Columbia Pike library is in dark gray and the above-ground parking garage is in tan.)

Preliminary site plan for the Arlington Career Center building (via APS)

Part of the current ACC building (indicated with red dashes) will be demolished to accommodate the above-ground, 400-space parking structure at S. Highland Street and 9th Street S.

The Columbia Pike Branch Library will remain where it is, as will the rest of the ACC building, which APS intends to use as a flexible space. Separately, APS is figuring out what to do with the building long term.

“We know that there’s interest in using the site to its fullest capacity,” Stengle said. “We all have that same goal, there are other steps that are in place to do those.”

With parking relocated, an existing surface parking lot will become a field.

Three superintendents have budgeted upgrades to this site over 16 years and multiple six- and 10-year CIPs, but movement has advanced sporadically.

Project costs and the redundancy of adding seats to the current ACC building are ares of concern for the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission, an advisory body that provides input to the schools and the county on facility planning.

“Commissioners expressed concern that the proposal uses up all the debt capacity for at least seven years, leaving no room to improve overcrowded elementary schools that have been waiting years for improvements (Randolph, Barcroft), or to build another elementary school in south Arlington when indications are that this will be needed in coming years,” according to a report on the 2022-24 CIP. “The increase in debt service will further constrain APS’ ability to fund instructional programs or staff salary increases in the coming years.”

Commissioners said APS should invest in “promised and much-needed common spaces” such as a proper gym, an outdoor field, a theater and cafeteria spaces at the Career Center, but it should focus its efforts to add seats in areas expected to see more growth, such as Crystal City and Pentagon City, and find “more creative and cost-effective ways” to add those seats — like using office spaces and joint school-county facilities.

That’s not the only change coming to the site. Arlington Community High School is set to move from another building on the ACC site, the formerly county-owned Fenwick building to a temporary facility in 2023 and permanently in 2026 to a community space set to be built in the second phase of Amazon’s HQ2 development in Pentagon City.

A group of students, parents, staff, civic association and community members met once last month and is meeting again on Wednesday, Feb. 16 and March 30 to discuss the project before presenting design information to the School Board on April 14.

The board is set to take action on those designs on April 28.

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