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Arlington Career Center project approved despite some resident concerns

On Saturday, the Arlington County Board approved plans to redevelop the Arlington Career Center on Columbia Pike.

Arlington Public Schools will be building a new 5-story Career Center building at 816 S. Walter Reed Drive to house students in vocational courses, such as veterinary sciences. Also set to be built: a standalone 4-story parking garage.

Plans to update the building have gone through many iterations over the years and were most recently reprised last February in a process fraught with concerns.

In the end, four of the five Board members voted in favor of the $180 million project, with Takis Karantonis dissenting. The new facility will have capacity for up to 1,619 students.

The vote came after they heard, and in some cases echoed, concerns from representatives of civic associations and citizen commissions, as well as neighbors. Before Saturday, the Planning Commission was also divided, voting 5-4 two weeks ago with the chair abstaining after a weighty pause.

Board members who greenlit the project justified their decision using variations on the saying “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

“The cost of the pursuit of a delay and the pursuit of a more perfect project are so high and the project brought before us — though not perfect — when delivered in its full vision… is going to be indeed a spectacular addition to an area that I think of as my broader neighborhood,” Board member Katie Cristol said. “And, more importantly, a home befitting of the incredible education happening within it.”

Some of the neighbors who spoke say they support the idea of the project and say they are not seeking perfection at all.

“The current APS plans, while ambitious, cut corners in ways that are unacceptable to the community and contrary to the our shared vision of a safe and equitable Arlington,” a coalition of leaders of civic associations along Columbia Pike said in a letter.

Top concerns from neighbors included the future of open space on the site and the environmental commitments of the proposed building. There were calls for sidewalks, undergrounded utilities and fencing that match those at other schools in Arlington, as well as a more forward-thinking solution to parking than a stand-alone, above-ground garage.

Former Arlington County Planning Commissioner Stephen Hughes said in a letter to the Board that the county should have deferred approving the use permit until APS addressed these issues.

“The Career Center site deserves to be the ‘Jewel of the Pike’; however, any claim of that today is disingenuous at best,” he wrote. “APS has failed for over a decade to address facility planning in a comprehensive way and besides the inclusion of the existing facilities on the [General Land Use Plan], we have no planning guidance to rely on with APS facilities.”

APS and the School Board intend to retrofit the current Career Center for the Montessori program now housed in the former Patrick Henry Elementary School. This building, in turn, would be torn down and turned into a green space.

Some people wanted these commitments included in the use permit that went before the County Board on Saturday. Otherwise, they say, no legal document binds APS to executing this vision and — absent funding and a plan — the Pike will lose a baseball diamond, basketball court and open green space with no commitments to recover them.

Board Chair Christian Dorsey said he was racking his brain to find a way to include conditions on the redevelopment. Absent a “magical” option, he reiterated that there are ways the County Board and the community can stay vigilant.

“If what we’ve talked about doesn’t come to pass… you have a couple of avenues available to you: hold both your public schools and county government accountable for any deviations from previously adopted policies [that] aren’t being pursued,” he said. “That doesn’t give a guarantee but nor does a use permit give a guarantee.”

Arlington Heights Civic Association Co-President Brian Sigritz said his neighborhood will be doing just that.

“Our neighborhood will be closely watching to make sure APS follows through with their stated intention to retrofit the old Career Center building for the Montessori program, deconstruct the Patrick Henry building, and provide much needed green space,” Brian Sigritz told ARLnow after the vote.

There were other issues with the project. Karantonis said he opposed the current plans because they do not commit to achieving a high enough standard of environmental efficiency.

He took up the mantle of environmental advocacy groups that came to APS last year advocating for the same standards reached by other recent school projects, including Fleet Elementary School.

“This the most expensive project brought before Arlington taxpayers,” Karantonis said. “I cannot in clean conscience say that we would sign off now to this without having the assurance of LEED Gold.”

Tomorrow (Tuesday), the Board will review plans to use 3108 Columbia Pike for commercial parking to support short-term parking needs for the Career Center. The county bought the office building at this address and is tearing it down to make way for temporary parking.

This was previously scheduled for Saturday but a community member requested it be moved to the meeting tomorrow for a full public hearing, a county spokesman told ARLnow.

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