After long and winding road, Arlington aquatic center set for opening

Interior of Long Bridge Park aquatics center. (Arlington County government)

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Just shy of 17 years after voters approved the project, the first patrons are slated to take to the Long Bridge Park aquatics center and fitness facility.

And to borrow from Beatles lyrics, it has been something in between a “long and winding road” and a “magical mystery tour” for all involved.

Arlington officials have set Aug. 23 as the effective “soft” opening of the 92,000-square-foot indoor facility, with a formal grand-opening celebration set for late September.

Available facilities will include a competition pool with diving towers; a family/leisure pool with a host of amenities; and a full-service fitness center.

The opening marks the end of a twisting, turning, at times politically charged odyssey to incorporate a pool facility into the northern tip of Crystal City, on a parcel that had come into the county government’s possession via a land swap.

Its gestation period has not been an easy one:

• Arlington voters by a 76-percent majority in 2004 approved a park bond that, they were told at the time, included enough funding to cover the entire cost of the Long Bridge Park project, including an aquatics facility as well as sports fields, an esplanade and more.

• Groundbreaking for the Long Bridge Park complex (though not specifically for the aquatics center) was held in early 2010.

• After a case of “mission creep” that saw the proposal balloon in scope and cost, county leaders in 2012 had to seek additional funding for the aquatics center and related amenities through a second park bond, at a time when public discontent over what critics derided as gold-plated “vanity” projects in Arlington was beginning to gather steam.

• In a sign that perhaps elected officials were getting a little nervous about voter commitment to the project, they opted to wrap funding for the aquatics center into a larger 2012 park-and-recreation bond, rather than (as had been requested by the Arlington County Civic Federation) send it to voters as a standalone item that would serve as a de-facto referendum on whether to move forward.

• Voters in November 2012 gave the parks bond the green light, but the margin (63-percent support) was almost 20 percentage points lower than several other bond packages on the same ballot, a shift of 20,000 county voters who supported transportation and school bonds but voted against the parks and recreation bond. A handful of precincts even voted against the park bond, something largely unknown most years.

• The 2012 vote should have been a warning sign to the Democratic oligarchy that then sat unchallenged on the County Board, thought they either missed it or chose to ignore it. But two years later, voters fed up with one-party rule installed independent John Vihstadt on the body, instituting a brief window of reflection about the level of spending on capital projects.

Officials went on to kill the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar project and shutter the money-losing Artisphere arts center, two of the prime targets of the public’s ire.

• After construction-cost estimates for the aquatics facility came in significantly higher than expected, then-County Manager Barbara Donnellan put the project on ice. Her successor, Mark Schwartz, resuscitated it but trimmed its size and decreed that its amenities be more off-the-rack and less designer-label in scope.

• In 2017, Arlington County Board members voted 4-1 in support of the design of the pool complex. Vihstadt, who would be ousted by voters a year later as the County Board returned to a Democratic monopoly, was the lone “nay” vote.

• In 2018, a ground-breaking ceremony was held even though, at the time, county leaders had no firm operating-cost estimates in hand – shades of the Artisphere project, where county staff inflated expected revenue and downplayed costs to get the project approved by County Board members, only to see the entire effort collapse when the public failed to show up.

• Construction of the aquatics center moved forward during the COVID crisis that began in March 2020, but the opening was delayed by county officials on both health and financial grounds.

The lengthy birthing process did allow Arlington officials to ink a sponsorship agreement with officials at Boeing (whose Washington-area offices are located adjacent to Long Bridge Park in Crystal City), which helped the county government defray some of its costs and will provide for free admittance to some military personnel and their dependents.