I don’t have a particularly happy story, but here’s background on plans for Wilson School and surrounding public lands:
1. Early in 2013, Steve Cole, vice-chair of Arlington’s Planning Commission, called on civic leaders near Rosslyn, plus leadership from relevant Arlington advisory committees, to coalesce into an informal group to provide public input on development of the Wilson School tract.
2. On June 4, Arlington County staff presented a proposed plan for the Wilson tract to the informal group as a kickoff to a “Wilson School Special Planning Study.” I'll try to get a copy posted to this board.
Here’s my (partisan/negative) review of the County staff proposed plan:
- The plan calls for “at least” 60,000 square ft2 (1.5 acres) of community space. That’s substantially less than what we’ve got now. I’m unaware that this proposal is informed by any evaluation of the availability and need for recreation space in Rosslyn.
- The plan involves development (probably high and intense) of two thirds of the site.
- There’s no mention of the path which connects our neighborhood to Wilson Blvd.
- Wilson School is gone gone gone. Maybe we’ll get a plaque.
- The plan includes construction of 200 units of affordable housing, probably via redevelopment of the existing Queens Court apts. However, the plan disregards preserving other highly threatened, nearby affordable housing (particularly the Crestmont and LeMar apts). So the plan countenances destruction of about 150 units of affordable housing to build 200 units.
3. At the unveiling of the plan, Arlington County staff stated that the Arlington Public School (APS) Board has decided to ‘surplus’ the Wilson School. That’s a turnaround from openly adopted APS policy. Interestingly, the board is on summer break so it’s impossible to confirm or discuss the APS policy shift ... till September by which time the County staff’s review process will be well underway.
Last month Paul Derby of NRCA encouraged Rosslyn residents to contact the APS board about Wilson. I heartily concur with that recommendation. The APS board should feel pressured to stand behind their own policies.
4. The affordable housing lobby is engaged big-time. I am reminded of the ‘housing project’ advocates of the 1960's who focused on construction over any other considerations, including housing preservation or the needs of a healthy community. Since the June 4 meeting, I’ve met with a representative of the Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE) organization. In contrast with several other affordable housing advocates, VOICE seems to have a broad perspective on community need.
I’ve yet to see any fundamental justification in terms of resident needs for the plan to develop this public land. I grew up in Oklahoma, and have a tendency to see ‘land grab’ where others may see progress. I include below a calmer perspective on the County Staff proposal from Steve Cole. I think it’s a worthwhile read:
Note (June 7) from Steve Cole to Mark Antell
It's fairly clear from the staff presentation indicating APS may "surplus" the property and your reaction that this represents a sea-change in the APS position vis-a-vis the Wilson School building and grounds. Some healthy skepticism is in order and it is important to get additional insight into the staff statement. At the same time, I am aware that County and School staffs and County and School Boards have had ongoing and very recent conversations about the disposition of the property. Frankly, it's hard for me to believe that this study, to plan future uses on the site without a school on it, would be beginning if this were not a generally held and agreed upon direction at the level of the two Boards. I don't think the County would impanel a working group of citizens and ask them to spend hours planning the site without some fairly firm understanding between the County and Schools.
I meant to write you earlier to say how important it was that you suggested adding to the study area the LeMar and Crestmont apartments. It is clear to me that one outcome that will be important to achieving consensus for any plan is the preservation/expansion of affordable housing. I for one think this is important and, increasingly believe this is possible while retaining much more open space that staff suggested as a minimum (60,000 sf). Adding the two market affordable complexes to the mix enhances the likelihood that this can be achieved.
Another dynamic that will play into this discuss is the extent and nature of any added private density/development on the site. It's generally been the case that this kind of development enables the County to achieve public purposes (e.g., a new fire station) without imposing higher taxes or borrowing.
So, what should the concerned citizen stance be? I see the proposed study as a welcome event. It suggests some new openness. It suggests that citizen input will not be ignored. I have watched several planning processes like the one proposed and have not seen one yet that citizens did not play a central role in shaping the outcome. There are a range of interests that will need to be seriously considered and addressed. At the moment, I believe there is a way to balance them. It will take determination, creative thinking, a large measure of common sense and good will. So, I think citizens should embrace this planning process. Sure, it may not turn out as we or anyone else desired. Still, I think its the best hope for a favorable outcome from many perspectives.