It would be a tight squeeze, but building a larger Fire Station #8 on the site of the current station along Lee Highway is feasible, Arlington County officials now acknowledge, a turnabout that could have a profound impact on discussions whether to move the station north to Old Dominion Drive, or raze and replace the existing facility.
Placing a three-bay or four-bay station on the existing site, even without purchasing additional land, is possible, county officials have told members of the task force prepping a recommendation on the station’s future.
“It would fit – it would work,” said Rodney Turner, who lives near the existing station and serves on the task force, which is set to deliver recommendations to the County Board in late May.
For those on the task force – and in the community – who have argued in support of building the future station where the current one stands, the new analysis seemed a gift from heaven.
“I’m excited. This is outstanding news,” said Marguarite Gooden, who (like Turner) represents the John M. Langston Civic Association on the task force. Gooden has been an unwavering supporter of keeping the fire station in the historically black neighborhood it has called home for a century.
But there is a catch.
While the roughly $14 million to $15 million cost of constructing a new fire station on the existing Lee Highway site is more or less the same as building on the alternate site – Old Dominion Drive and 26th Street North – county officials would need to construct a temporary fire station to handle calls during the rebuilding process. Estimated cost: An additional $3.75 million.
Purchasing a parcel adjacent to the existing station, which would help give it breathing space, would add about $800,000 more.
That would push the raze-and-rebuild option well beyond the $14.1 million that was projected by county officials in the government’s last capital-improvement plan.
While acknowledging that the $14.1 million figure is “a guiding number” rather than the absolute maximum, task force chairman Noah Simon still voiced concerns about going beyond that figure.
“We don’t want to present an unreasonable [dollar] number” to the County Board, he said at the task force’s April 14 meeting.
If the task force’s recommended option is too pricey, “we’ll be ignored,” Simon predicted.
County fire officials long have sought to replace the 1960s-era Station #8 with a modern facility, and for just as long have desired to put it on the 7-acre Old Dominion parcel, which is about 3 minutes from the existing station by car and currently is home to the county government’s salt dome.
That proposal hit rocky shoals last year, when residents in the Hall’s Hill/High View Park community rallied to keep the fire station where it is, and residents living around the proposed new location gave a lukewarm response to having the station in their midst.
Proponents of moving the station to Old Dominion say it will provide quicker response time to single-family neighborhoods in far northwest Arlington, while those eager to keep it where it is say the county government should consider building a mini-station, with one or two bays, somewhere closer to those neighborhoods.
That option would add $7.6 million to $10.1 million to the total cost if a mini-station were built on county-owned land, and even more if property had to be acquired. Funding would have to come through cuts in other parts of the government’s capital-spending plan, a decision that would rest with the County Board.
What is now Fire Station #8 began life in the early 20th century as a volunteer station to serve the segregated neighborhood of Hall’s Hill, whose residents felt shortchanged in fire coverage. Staffed first by African-American volunteers and later by the first black paid firefighters in the commonwealth, the station’s history retains an emotional pull on many residents in the community.
At the April 14 meeting, it was clear the task force is not yet at the point of consensus on what to recommend. It may boil down to whether task-force members think that improving response times to areas in the far northwest portion of the county is worth the tradeoff of lowering those times to areas along and south of Lee Highway.
“We want to make sure the maximum number of people get adequate service,” said Richard Samp, who represents the Old Glebe Civic Association on the task force. (But even trying to define what constitutes “adequate service” has proved a challenge for the county government and task force members.)
At the beginning of the task-force process in January, members believed the existing Lee Highway site was too small for a modern station bigger than two bays. Schematic drawings, however, showed it could be done, with or without incorporating an adjoining property that currently is on the market.
“This actually works very well – very efficient use of space,” said Alisa Cowen, a representative of the Old Dominion Civic Association.
Task force members will reconvene April 28 to further work toward a final proposal. Simon earlier said he expected the group could go all the way to its mandated deadline of May 31 before dispatching a recommendation to County Board members. He has not ruled out recommending multiple options, rather than just one.