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As Arlington Career Center plans take shape, concerns linger about long-term plans for the site

(Updated at 12:55 p.m.) Plans are taking shape to rebuild the Arlington Career Center with improved amenities and, potentially, an additional 450 seats.

And it seems Arlington Public Schools is proposing a novel use for those seats: a middle school component to the Arlington Tech project-based learning program.

The idea appeared to elicit surprise from some Arlington School Board members, who requested to see this idea fleshed out more before they voted on it. The board is set to pick between two concepts for the Career Center project, only one of which proposes the additional seats, during its meeting on April 28.

Board Vice-Chair Reid Goldstein said using the seats for a middle school component “[puts] the cart before the horse.”

“There’s been no decision that a middle school component is decided and going to take place or appropriate,” he said.

School Board member Mary Kadera said she needed to see “a robust evaluation” of the program before deciding to create a middle school program.

“Before we talk about expanding a program, I want to make sure the program is actually delivering on what it promises to offer,” she said.

Although the idea of a middle school appears new, plans to add 450 seats to the Career Center date back to the fall, when the School Board directed APS staff to flesh out two designs: a “base” plan with the additional seats and an “alternative” plan without them.

The only other difference between the plans is the cost: the added seats raise project costs from $158.2 million to $174.6 million. Both those estimates are $4 to $5 million higher than initial projections back in October, due to higher construction costs.

Board Chair Barbara Kanninen reminded the School Board members that the designs reflect the Board’s direction to come up with plans that meet, or nearly meet, its requirements to spend about $170 million and complete the project by 2027.

“I think it’s important for us, and the community, to recognize what’s been approved by the board and the question on the table,” she said. “It’s generally good practice for us to honor what’s been voted on in the past — otherwise, we end up with chaotic governance.”

Goldstein said he does not intend to further delay the project but added that the designs and cost estimates do not totally meet Board parameters.

“I need more insight into the future vision to know this is the right step,” he said.

Should the School Board accept one of the two designs during its meeting on April 28, the long-awaited project would still require the approval of voters via a School Bond referendum this November.

If that is approved, demolition could begin in the summer of 2023 and construction could start that December. The new building would be completed in 2025 and the entire project would be completed in April 2027.

Phases of development for the proposed Arlington Career Center project (via Arlington County)

Career Center renovations have progressed in fits and starts over the last decade. Most recently, a two-year planning effort to add 800 seats to the building ground to a halt in 2020 because estimates came in $84 million over budget.

Instead, APS focused on smaller-scale projects: renovations to the Columbia Pike Branch Library and expanding the Arlington Tech high school program.

With plans moving forward once more, APS is proposing adding new classrooms and common areas — including performing arts spaces, a gym, a plaza and a synthetic turf field — to the Career Center. The changes would upgrade the classrooms but at least one program, veterinary sciences, will be permanently downsized to no longer include a large animal component.

The new building will range in height from 77 feet to 16 feet and will be adjacent to a new above-ground parking garage.

The layout of the proposed Arlington Career Center project (via Arlington County)

“This is a concept,” said Jeff Chambers, the school system’s director of design and construction, during a presentation to the School Board last week. “A lot of people expect all the details to be worked out… We’re going to be resolving and working on a lot of details as we move forward.”

Ted Black, who chaired the Career Center planning process this spring, said the concepts address student and staff needs for basic common areas and provide for spacious, modernized classrooms for its programs.

The new school “will enable and empower those students to excel and succeed in the areas of study that are critical to our community,” he said.

Still, there is a sense among some School Board members and residents that the proposed upgrades may not make sense in the long term. This came out during discussions this spring, according to Planning Commissioner Sara Steinberger, who represented the Public Facilities Review Committee.

“Overall, the process revealed some tension between APS’s stated priorities and community goals for the ACC site,” she said. “The charter excluded the long-term goals for the ACC campus, however many members of the [Building Level Planning Committee] requested guidance to be responsive and have an understanding of what buildings would be retained and removed.”

This made it challenging to give feedback and understand the site, she said.

Christine Brittle, who lives in a neighborhood near the project, questioned whether this was the best use of funds given that the neighborhoods of South Arlington are projected to grow amid new development.

“Students at the Career Center need and deserve adequate facilities, but we are concerned about the lack of a long-term plan for the site, especially given APS’s planned $170 million investment,” she said. “Yes, this project has been previously delayed, but prior delays are not a justification for inadequate planning.”

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