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A custom stone cross was lifted into place on the Cathedral of St. Thomas More along Arlington Blvd this week.

To celebrate the placement of this feature, the highest point of the structure, the Diocese of Arlington held a “capping ceremony.”

Bishop [Michael] Burbidge blessed the cross and construction personnel, asking God to continue protecting them throughout their work, and invited them to a luncheon as a gesture of his gratitude for their devoted work,” said Billy Atwell, the chief communications officer for the diocese.

The new cross is one of many changes coming to the structure at 3901 Cathedral Lane, also home to a school. A suburban parish church retrofitted to serve as a cathedral, the house of worship is undergoing a year-long renovation project to better signal its status as the “mother church” for a half-million Northern Virginia Catholics and the seat of their bishop.

Atwell says the project started on time and will be completed before the altar is dedicated on Sept. 5.

Workers first repaired and replaced infrastructure systems such as heating and air conditioning. Since then, all interior walls have been repainted and a new marble floor for the sanctuary was installed.

“The exterior stonework is nearing completion, which already gives the cathedral a completely new appeal for those visiting or driving by the church,” Atwell said. “New stained-glass windows are being installed, and new liturgical furnishings, including an altar and a tabernacle, will be set into place.”

Meantime, craftsmen have been carving some dozen statues that will celebrate the multicultural communities within the diocese. The project, including the custom cross, was designed by Arlington-based sacred architecture firm O’Brien and Keane Architecture.

Atwell confirmed the project remains within budget, which includes the $15.3 million estimated for materials, construction, engineering and architectural costs.

“Bishop Burbidge has kept his commitments to ensure all donor gifts received were beyond their normal contributions to their parish, the diocese and Catholic Charities, that no debt would be incurred, and that no funds are being drawn from parish or diocesan accounts, including offertory and the Bishop’s Lenten Appeal.”

The cathedral renovations were timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Diocese of Arlington, established in 1974. The diocese will undertake charitable works, still being discussed, and host three events to honor the project’s completion and the milestone anniversary.

First up is a Diocesan Jubilee Fest on June 8 at the Warren County Fairgrounds, boasting a Marian procession, Mass, games, music, rides and a fireworks show. Next, the renovated cathedral will be dedicated during a Mass on Sept. 5 unveiling the changes and celebrating the Golden Jubilee. Lastly, there will be a pilgrimage to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C. on Oct. 5, presided over by Pope Francis’ emissary to U.S. bishops.

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Celtic House on Columbia Pike is nearly ready to unveil its new whiskey bar.

Construction on the basement expansion has wrapped up and the owners are now adding finishing touches before the grand opening, expected in the next week or two, General Manager Chris Devenney told ARLnow.

“You only get one chance to open, and we want to do it right and not screw it up,” he said.

The whiskey bar, situated beneath the pub, is linked to the main restaurant via a wooden staircase. Additionally, patrons will be able to use a separate entrance located at the back of the building.

An official opening date hasn’t been set but Devenney anticipates it will be within the next 10 days. Upon opening, the bar’s hours will be 4 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., Wednesday through Sunday.

Owners Michael McMahon and Rolando Canales initially planned to open the bar last fall but they decided to time the opening with March Madness and St. Patrick’s Day instead.

“That’s our best month of the year,” McMahon said.

Billy Mulcaire, a D.C.-area carpenter trained in old-world techniques, started working on the complex solid red oak bar last February. He also crafted all the furniture, stairway and vestibule leading into the bar behind the pub, says McMahon.

“He’s a good friend of mine… He [doesn’t] do this stuff anymore,” McMahon said. “It is a great masterpiece.”

Construction on the space, previously a dry cleaning business, began in August, after the county’s historic review board approved plans for a vestibule on the exterior of the pub, which is located in a historic district.

McMahon, who immigrated to the U.S. from County Clare in southwestern Ireland in 1987, co-founded Celtic House with Canales in 2014. When the dry cleaning business closed, Canales suggested to McMahon that they lease or renovate the space.

Although McMahon was initially hesitant, Canales convinced his business partner to embrace the opportunity and launch a whiskey bar that could host private gatherings while expanding the restaurant’s capacity from 90 to nearly 150 patrons.

“So, this room gives us an opportunity that we can tap into that if they want to do a showcase or have a nice happy hour here with 40 or 50 people,” McMahon said.

The food menu downstairs will be the same as the upstairs menu, while the event and catering menus — set to publish on the restaurant’s website this week — will “look a little different,” says Devenney.

Devenney mentioned the new bar will also have a much more extensive selection of Irish whiskeys, which are “difficult to get.”

“So, we have bottles we’ve been collecting for over a year, really since we started construction,” he said.

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The Barcroft Apartments on Columbia Pike (via Arlington County)

Arlington County Board members and advocates were split this weekend on how many units at the Barcroft Apartments should be set aside for Arlington’s lowest-income earners.

Two years ago, the county and Amazon loaned $150 million and $160 million, respectively, to developer Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners to purchase the aging garden apartment complex, located on 60 acres near the corner of S. George Mason Drive and S. Four Mile Run Drive.

The purchase agreement stipulated all 1,335 units would be affordable to households earning up to 60% of the area median income, or AMI, for 99 years, in an effort to avoid displacing the 1,100 resident families who lived there.

After community members advocated for deeper affordability, Jair Lynch developed a financing plan that further commits the county and property owner to keep at least 134 units for households earning up to 30% AMI. This would be the county’s largest commitment of 30% AMI units to date, among the properties in its affordable housing stock, according to a county report.

Board members celebrated the plan, which outlines how Jair Lynch will refinance the county’s loan to cover various renovation and redevelopment phases and try to achieve savings for the county in the long run. During remarks when they approved the plan, members said it documents how this project can be financially viable, despite cripplingly high interest rates.

“There are so many good things that are happening here,” County Board Chair Christian Dorsey said. “The areas where people want improvements are absolutely doable because the partners involved are committed not only to making this a financially viable experience but a good experience.”

He said that Saturday’s discussion was not the time or place to add in a new affordability commitment.

Advocates wanted to see a total of 255 units set aside for 30% AMI households — a single person earning $31,65o or a family of four bringing in $45,210. That number reflects that 255 households at the Barcroft Apartments that reported earning up to 30% AMI in 2021, when Jair Lynch purchased the complex, according to the Arlington Community Foundation.

“Deeper affordability should not expire when the current residents move on,” Arlington Community Foundation Director of Grants and Initiatives Anne Vor der Bruegge said. “We acknowledge the sobering financial dynamics at play and the need to protect the viability of this deal, however, we believe that our goal can ultimately be accomplished using land use and other tools that have not yet been explored.”

Interim County Board member Tannia Talento was not so sure.

“When we look at other committed affordable properties in Arlington that are not able to maintain a good quality of maintenance for their buildings, I just cannot in good mind say, ‘Let’s deepen affordability and we’ll figure it out later,” she said. “I just can’t do it.”

Should market conditions improve or Jair Lynch finds other funding sources, the county and the developer will revisit this minimum commitment, which will hold if market conditions worsen instead, per the report.

“Part of the financing plan is utilizing these potential savings to pay down the County’s debt while still meeting County goals,” a report says. “These anticipated savings are important due to the significant increase in the cost of capital to the County because interest rates have jumped dramatically since the 2021 acquisition.”

Debt service on the county’s short-term line of credit is currently $9 million annually for interest alone — more than four times what was projected in 2021 for the 2023 fiscal year, the report says. The county says this puts a strain on its Affordable Housing Investment Fund, or AHIF, and its ability to take on new projects.

“That is an understatement, considering AHIFs total appropriation for FY 2024 is $20.5 million,” said former independent County Board candidate Audrey Clement, the lone speaker this weekend opposed to the project.

She also said the costs are too high for the first renovation phase.

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LA Fitness at National Gateway is set to closed temporarily in December 2023 (staff photo by James Jarvis)

The LA Fitness location south of Crystal City is gearing up for a major makeover.

Located on 3550 S. Clark Street in the National Gateway complex near Potomac Yard, the gym announced via flyers last week that it will shut its doors on Friday, Dec. 1, at 2 p.m. and reemerge as “Club Studio Fitness.”

The renovation period is slated to last six months to a year, says club manager Dennis Balnikov, who also confirmed the temporary closure.

“They’re going to rebuild the whole gym,” Balnikov told ARLnow.

While the National Gateway LA Fitness undergoes its transformation, members can use any of the chain’s area locations, including the nearby S. Glebe Road spot in the Arlington Ridge Shopping Center.

With the new name will come new amenities and updated pricing, Balnikov said.

“There’s going to be new equipment, and for this Club Studio, there will be different prices for memberships,” he said.

Club Studio was launched earlier this year by LA Fitness parent company Fitness International as an upscale fitness and wellness concept featuring a range of classes, including yoga and pilates, coupled with “luxury amenities” such as cryotherapy and recovery chambers.

A location is planned in Tysons and in several major cities across the U.S.

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Nottingham Elementary School (via Google Maps)

Nottingham Elementary School will not become a swing space for other schools slated for renovations, according to Arlington Public Schools.

The administration came to this conclusion last night in a “Committee of the Whole” meeting during a preview of a forthcoming report outlining the schools in need of extensive renovations.

This report found none of the schools recommended for renovations need Nottingham to become a swing space “at this time,” per an email sent to families this morning, Wednesday, and shared with ARLnow. The email assured families the swing space proposal will not be included in the Capital Improvement Plan for 2025-34.

“There may be a need for swing space for future projects, and any swing space proposals will be communicated well in advance,” the email said. “Moving forward, a more in-depth feasibility study of any school needing major construction or renovation will be completed prior to determining when and if swing space will be needed, or if there are alternative ways to manage the project.”

This decision closes a chapter of heartache for Nottingham families and staff, opened this spring when APS proposed closing Nottingham, in the Williamsburg neighborhood at 5900 Little Falls Road, and making it a swing space as early as 2026.

APS said it chose this school because it would cost the least to retrofit compared to other schools, county facilities or commercial buildings, and because this approach would be more fiscally responsible than building a new school.

The backlash from current and future Nottingham parents was swift. Some argued APS made the decision on faulty projections of falling enrollment and criticized the system for releasing this information before a renovation plan was ready.

“This entire fiasco could have been avoided if they had waited to get the results of this report,” parent Kiera Jones told ARLnow today. “A ton of time, energy, and stress for nothing.”

“The process was completely out of order,” parent Malini Silva added.

Jones called on APS to “rehaul… their approach to projects and how they treat their stakeholders.”

This includes how APS treats teachers, according to parent Jennifer Loeb and June Prakash, the president of the teachers union, Arlington Education Association.

Teachers felt demoralized and angry after a meeting last month with administrators about the swing space proposal, Loeb told ARLnow. Prakash told the School Board the same thing earlier this month.

“The actions of the current cabinet over the past few weeks highlight exactly why one joins the union,” Prakash said, citing how teachers felt after the “botched informational session” about Nottingham and pending healthcare changes that roiled current and retired teachers.

Prior to the forthcoming report, the Arlington County Council of PTAs predicted APS would not have sufficient funding for the large-scale renovations that would require a swing space.

This was confirmed during the discussion of the renovations report, which found APS has funding for five large-scale projects, Jones said.

During the meeting last night, Loeb said administrators discussed how APS would not know if it truly needs a swing space until it conducts deeper studies of buildings set for renovations and contractors weigh in.

These studies take a year and would not begin until next fall, meaning APS would not know if a swing space were necessary until two years from now.

“You’re talking about work that is happening years from now, but they told Nottingham six months ago ‘It’ll be you,’ when they had none of the necessary data,” she said.

This morning, when parents were walking their kids to school, Loeb said everyone “looked relieved.”

“We can get back to being a community now. We can get back to building our school and really investing in our school community again,” she said. “We have space and breathing room to do that now.”

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The northern portion of Lacey Woods Park will be getting a facelift.

Arlington County will replace the lighted basketball court and multi-use field at the 14-acre park along N. George Mason Drive near Ballston, according to a project webpage.

The building housing both a picnic shelter and restrooms will be replaced with a new picnic shelter and structure for restrooms.

Arlington County is mulling two design concepts for this project. It is seeking public feedback on these concepts via an online survey open now through next Thursday, Oct. 26.

“Your feedback will help inform updates to the existing amenities, including a preferred layout for the restrooms and picnic shelter,” the survey says.

Two concepts for updates to Lacey Woods Park (via Arlington County)

In the first concept, the bathrooms and picnic shelter both border the new court and the restroom entrance is off to the side.

In the second concept, the bathroom entrance faces the court and the picnic shelter is behind the bathrooms.

Two concepts for updates to Lacey Woods Park (via Arlington County)

The county will also update site furnishings and make improvements for circulation and accessibility for people with disabilities. There will be landscaping, drainage and stormwater management upgrades.

This project is set to cost a little more than $2 million and was approved as part of the 2019-28 Capital Improvement Plan. Some $388,000 comes from short-term financing and another $1.6 million from bonds.

“Capital maintenance projects address facilities that have exceeded their lifespan and are in need of renovation,” the survey says. “Renovations to the existing playground and the addition of new amenities are not within the scope of this project.”

A picnic shelter in the southern half of the site was replaced in 2014.

The county is currently estimating that construction on this project would start in the second quarter of 2025 and wrap up in the last quarter of the year.

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The playground at Gunston Park is expected to be replaced starting late next year as part of a $1.2 million renovation project.

Arlington’s Dept. of Parks and Recreation has released two concept designs for the park, located at 1401 28th Street S., near Gunston Middle School. Residents can provide feedback on these designs online through Thursday, Oct. 19.

The impetus for the work is that the park’s playground area “has reached the end of its useful life” and all play equipment — as well as site furnishings and a picnic shelter — have to be removed, parks department spokesman Adam Segel-Moss explains in a video.

“This Parks Maintenance Capital project will include demolition, site work, and design and construction of a new playground and picnic shelter,” the county says on a project webpage. “This project will also address grading and drainage, site circulation, site furnishings, landscaping, and stormwater concerns.”

No new amenities are planned for the Capital Improvement Plan-funded project, the county adds.

The new playground will be in the northwest portion of park, next to a parking lot, diamond field and basketball court. Segel-Moss says DPR last heard from residents in February 2022 about what the new playground should look like.

“There was an overwhelming desire for new, soft and resilient playground surfacing within play areas,” he said.

People also requested more seating areas, trash cans, slides, swings and climbing structures and fencing, with separated play areas for the 2-5 and 5-12 age groups, he noted.

DPR will focus on improving accessibility for people with disabilities, catering to different age groups and making other upgrades, while overcoming “inherent limitations,” such as space constraints, tree preservation and drainage issues, Segel-Moss said.

“We have several other exciting prospects, such as creating spaces for different age groups, improving the picnic area and seating, enhancing the park’s visual appeal through enhanced plantings and addressing stormwater erosion issues,” he said.

The parks department has narrowed down these ideas to two concept designs.

The first concept for the new Gunston Park playground (via Arlington County)

The two share many of the same features, including new fencing, stroller parking and seating areas.

Some differences include the addition of sculptural benches in the first concept and, in the second concept, a “smaller but greater variety of play structures and a larger connected looping pathway,” Segel-Moss explains.

The second concept for the new Gunston Park playground (via Arlington County)

Although they are illustrative only, Segel-Moss also showed pictures of what the new play equipment and picnic shelters could look like.

The first shows hexagonal play structures for 2-5 and 5-12 year olds, swings, a pergola-style picnic area and sculptural benches.

Play equipment and site furnishing examples for Concept 1 (via Arlington County)

The second illustrates the addition of a climbing area for older children to other kinds of play equipment as well as a different style of picnic shelter.

Play equipment and site furnishing examples for Concept 2 (via Arlington County)

The questionnaire is open for two weeks and a final draft concept will be prepared for feedback this winter.

The Arlington County Board could review a contract in the fall of 2024 and, if the contract is approved, construction could begin that winter, ending in the fall of 2025.

Previous park renovations include converting the diamond field from grass to synthetic turf.

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Celtic House on Columbia Pike says it plans to unveil its new whiskey and bourbon bar beneath the existing restaurant “later this fall.”

In an Instagram post on Wednesday, the pub said the centerpiece of the new bar will be a handcrafted, solid red oak bar, offering a range of rare whiskeys and bourbons. The additional dining space will also add 60 seats to the main restaurant’s current capacity of 90-100 patrons.

Celtic House initially hit a snag when it filed for a permit in March to renovate its newly leased basement unit — previously a defunct dry cleaning business — because the shopping center is located in a historic district.

Despite these hurdles, the permit was approved in August and construction started downstairs that same month.

General Manager Chris Devenney told ARLnow the new bar will be a seamless extension of the existing restaurant. A staircase will connect the two units but the new downstairs bar will have a separate entrance, too.

The main dining area will remain open throughout the renovation, Devenney said.

“Our main pub and restaurant is still fully operational. We’re hoping it will remain fully operational during construction,” he said.

Devenney envisions the new bar doubling as a space for hosting events such as birthdays, rehearsal dinners, funeral wakes and showers.

Although he could not confirm an exact opening date, the general manager said he hopes it will be in the next few months.

“I don’t want to give false hope in case we run into an issue with construction or it’s going to take us longer just getting things ready,” he said.

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Arlington County courthouse on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023 (staff photo by James Jarvis)

Costs are creeping up for a courtroom makeover in Arlington.

County Board members approved an extra $200,000 this past Saturday to complete renovations in Courtroom 10B, a project ambitiously dubbed the “courtroom of the future.”

The Board had initially approved a $1.9 million budget for the project, encompassing not only tech enhancements and layout modifications but also administrative costs and a $755,000 fee for Michigan-based contractor Sorensen Gross Company. A $135,000 contingency for unexpected construction hiccups was set aside, bringing the contract’s total value to $890,000.

The contingency is nearly gone, county staff said, prompting County Board action. Damaged stonework, deteriorating fabric wall panels and worn-out carpeting all brought unexpected costs and, as a result, additional funding was sought as the project enters its final phase.

Once completed, the oft-used courtroom will feature new capabilities, such as enabling police to upload and display body-camera and smartphone footage, simplified equipment mobility, and compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

Arlington courtrooms have not had a major renovation since 1994, per a 2022 county report.

While construction was initially slated for completion in July, ARLnow saw signs of ongoing work during a recent courthouse visit, including plastic tarp over doors and covered windows.

A county spokeswoman said construction is now expected to wrap up in November.

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CCPTA President Claire Noakes speaks at the School Board meeting on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023 (via Arlington Public Schools)

(Updated at 2:30 p.m.) The Arlington County Council of PTAs is criticizing plans to close Nottingham Elementary School and make it a “swing space” where students go when their school is being renovated.

In suggesting this change, the coalition of PTAs, or CCPTA, says Arlington Public Schools has not considered how little money it has in the next decade to spend on sorely needed renovations. It adds the move would disadvantage low-income, diverse neighborhoods that rely on schools for county and community-based services.

This spring, APS proposed closing Nottingham, in the Williamsburg neighborhood at 5900 Little Falls Road, and making it a swing space as early as 2026. It was part of a suite of proposed changes to solve for projected capacity imbalances: several schools below Langston Blvd are over-full while their counterparts north of the highway have many empty seats.

Nottingham was chosen because it would cost the least to retrofit — $5 million to expand its ability to receive buses — compared to other schools, county facilities or commercial buildings. APS also argued it would be more fiscally responsible to use the under-capacity buildings it currently has, rather than build a new school.

This proposal quickly rankled current and future Nottingham parents, some of whom argue APS made the decision on faulty projections of falling enrollment. The CCPTA joined their chorus during the School Board meeting last Thursday.

“Recent spending decisions and currently proposed spending projects have monopolized our bond issuance capacity until at least FY 2032, leaving insufficient funding for a major renovation,” CCPTA President Claire Noakes said in a statement released after the meeting.

She notes 17 of 37 school buildings have not had a major renovation in at least 20 years and are in need of upgrades, creating “a backlog of need.”

“The lack of available funds for a major renovation will cause the swing space to stay empty for six years, while other identified needs that could have been paid for with that $5 million will go unmet,” she continued.

The CCPTA illustrated its argument in a chart that shows how much money APS estimates it can issue in bonds for major renovations over the next decade.

It estimates a major renovation would exceed $25 million, based on estimates for one such project down the pike. The CCPTA say that APS would have to accumulate a few years of bond capacity, from Arlington County, to embark on a major renovation.

This squeeze is due to projects APS already has in the queue, including the new, forthcoming $180 million Arlington Career Center building and related plans to retrofit the current Career Center for the Montessori program now housed in the former Patrick Henry Elementary School. This building is set to be demolished and turned into a green space.

(Note: The chart below lists $7.5 million for the Career Center because this was tacked onto the project’s costs after APS approved the project via the previous Capital Improvement Plan.)

A chart from the CCPTA arguing APS will deliver a “swing space” at Nottingham at least six years before having the money to start a major renovation project (via CCPTA)

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Nottingham Elementary School (via Google Maps)

A new proposal from Arlington Public Schools (APS) would send Nottingham Elementary students to other schools and use the building to house other students temporarily displaced by school renovations.

Parents of students at Nottingham were notified of the proposal yesterday (Thursday) by APS, ahead of a School Board work session discussing the proposal last night.

Within 24 hours, some current and prospective parents mobilized and formed a group, Neighbors for Nottingham, to learn more about the proposal and formulate next steps before a potential School Board vote a year from now.

The school system says it needs a “swing space” to prepare for renovation projects and balance enrollment in North Arlington, where there are more seats than students. APS staff are currently developing a timeline and list of schools to be renovated for the 2025-2034 Capital Improvement Plan, which will be approved next June.

“By serving as swing space, our school will continue to play a vital role in supporting education in our community while other schools undergo necessary improvements,” planning staff told parents in an email, shared with ARLnow.

Elementary capacity by zone in Arlington (via Arlington Public Schools)

APS considered 61 sites before settling on the Williamsburg neighborhood school at 5900 Little Falls Road, eliminating options based on size, location and cost needed to prepare the building for young students. It says Nottingham works because enrollment is low and stable, and nearby schools can absorb many of the 413 displaced students — though APS noted that receiving schools may need to add some capacity.

If the CIP is approved next year, Nottingham could be repurposed as early as the 2026-27 school year. Students would be transferred to surrounding elementary schools such as Discovery, Jamestown, Taylor, and Tuckahoe, and staff would begin to be reassigned in the spring of 2026.

Ways to create a swing space and potential costs (via Arlington Public Schools)

Would-be parent Coco Price says she and her neighbors are devastated.

“We have been so looking forward to sending our now-toddler-age children there when they reach elementary-age in a few short years and would be sincerely crushed to see them reassigned to another Arlington school — one that is potentially either not within walking distance or not as highly-rated as Nottingham,” Price said.

The proposal could disrupt educational plans for new homeowners, like Price.

“Should the motion pass, it would… potentially drive us to consider moving to a more stable school district outside of Arlington,” she said. “We also worry how this decision would impact our home’s resale values down the line.”

Others questioned the need for this work and criticized APS for not evaluating alternatives to a “swing space” in its 272-page report.

“We didn’t see any serious discussion about options such as portable learning trailers for schools going under renovations or for temporarily displacing just the students at schools that were under renovations for the limited time period of those renovations,” would-be parent Jeff Heuwinkel told ARLnow.

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