A proposal offering the Arlington County government a free elementary-school site in exchange for an increase in zoning density for new development may have come too late to be feasible.
County and school leaders reacted cautiously to the outline of a plan proposed by the Snell Properties, owner of the 188-unit Dominion Arms apartment complex at South Glebe Road and 2nd Street South, just south of Thomas Jefferson Middle School.
In an Oct. 15 letter to county leaders, the ownership group suggested giving the school system enough space on its 5.25-acre parcel for a new elementary school, and in return receiving increases in density should they decide to tear down the existing complex and replace it with new housing elsewhere on the parcel.
While the proposal seemed to win at least one champion – County Board member John Vihstadt – other elected officials were joined by Superintendent Patrick Murphy and acting County Manager Mark Schwartz in voicing caution.
Murphy expressed the concern that the proposal could “derail or delay” efforts to have a new elementary school in place by the start of the 2019-20 school year, and would be an affront to the South Arlington Working Group, which for much of the past five months has been evaluating potential sites for a new school.
“We have a process and we need to respect that process,” Murphy said, while not closing the door to consideration of the idea.
Schwartz said the degree of density being proposed by the developer – which would total about 450 units of residential housing, either rental or condo – currently only exists in Crystal City and Rosslyn, and would require a lengthy process that could include changes to the government’s General Land Use Plan.
Even merely evaluating the proposal “will take staff time and energy” at a time when planners already are working on multiple projects, Schwartz said.
“I’m not saying it couldn’t be done or shouldn’t be done,” he said, but added, “we have a limited amount of not only staff but community resources.”
Chris Hanessian, executive vice president of Snell Properties, said initial studies suggest they could meet the School Board’s timetable.
“[D]elivery of a new school on the Dominion Arms property by the fall of 2019 is feasible,” Hanessian said in a letter to School Board and County Board members.
Vihstadt, who serves as the County Board’s liaison to the South Arlington Working Group, said that even if the “intriguing” proposal would delay availability of new classroom space, it should be considered.
“We’re making a decision for 50 years,” he said. “It is well worth pursuing.”
But several of his board colleagues weren’t along for the ride. “I would be, at a minimum, hesitant,” said County Board Vice Chairman Walter Tejada.
Jim Presswood, a leader in the Save Thomas Jefferson Park group that earlier this year convinced County Board members not to rubber-stamp a School Board proposal locating a new school adjacent to Thomas Jefferson Middle School, said the Dominion Arms proposition could provide space for new classrooms while preserving open space at the middle school.
“It’s a win-win,” he said.
But every voice of support seemed to generate a retort.
County Board member Libby Garvey, who in January supported moving forward with the Thomas Jefferson site, agreed with Schwartz that the process would be time-consuming, and said at some point action has to be taken on picking a school site. “We can’t keep looking,” she said.
The Dominion Arms apartment complex offers rental units priced moderately by Arlington standards, ranging from $1,190 per month for studios to $1,690 for two-bedrooms. It also includes about 13,000 square feet of ground-floor retail and office space.
Like many commercial properties of its 60-year-old vintage, the building is surrounded by a sea of surface parking, which if put underground (a not inexpensive proposition) could free up space for other uses, including a school.
“[G]iven the amount of land we have to work with, we believe a project of this scale could be easily accommodated,” Hanessian wrote to county leaders.
Greg Greeley, who heads the South Arlington Working Group, said his panel would mull the concept before it submits a final report to the School Board on Nov. 5.
Given the community discussion, “we will want to look at what the proposal is,” Greeley said.