Our Man in Arlington

August 1, 2018 8:07 PM0 comments

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I joined the several dozen who braved Arlington’s monsoon June 24 and journeyed to the raggedy outskirts of Crystal City.

There, separated from the drenched audience by a moat of mud, dignitaries shoveled the first dirt to begin building the disputatious $60 million Long Bridge Aquatics and Fitness Center.

Hints of that public project’s years of messy politics were detectable in speeches delivered only 10 days after the County Board conducted its final debate on whether the big pool is a boon or a boondoggle.

County Board Chair Katie Cristol marveled at how this undeveloped brownfield once called the “north tract” had a century-old history as an “entertainment complex, a tow-yard and a dumping ground,” but will in two years become “an amazing landmark for Arlington.”

Neighborhood activist Toby Smith, who beginning in 2001 chaired the task force that determined what to do with the land Arlington gained in a swap, said when he started, “We had no idea what would be built.” Surveys showed a desire for swimming.

Speakers credited recently deceased Planning Commission member and Democratic activist Carrie Johnson for her persistent vision for the site called a “wasteland.”

A now-bearded former County Board member Jay Fisette hailed the “difficult procurement process” as a success in rescuing usable land. A collegiate swimmer, Fisette said he wanted to “undo a myth” that this project was “my pool.” The concept emerged from the community, he stressed, though it was delayed by his own energy plan — and by high initial contractor bids.

At the July 14 County Board meeting, member John Vihstadt made a final plea to derail a project he voted against — alone. Citing a shortage of funds for land acquisition and parks, he recommended “a reprogramming of these funds or outright deferral.” If the Aquatic Center were put to Arlington voters today, he added, “I have no doubt it would fail. But I can also count votes,” said the candidate up for reelection. “I accept the will of my colleagues” with hope the facility is a success.

County manager Mark Schwartz warned that canceling the county’s first design-build contract — on which $4 million has been spent — would raise legal issues. “It would put our reputation at risk not only with the public but with the engineering and construction” industries, who might be reluctant to offer future bids on projects like schools.

Erik Gutshall warned, “Just because earth hasn’t been turned yet doesn’t mean a lot been hasn’t been going on.”

Christian Dorsey said the project also “promotes geographic equity” by expanding access to public schools beyond the limited-availability pools at the high schools — two of three of which are in North Arlington.

Most agreed it’s “false choice” to pit parks funds against spending on schools. Might this be an issue in independent Vihstadt’s November election prospects?

His Democratic opponent Matt de Ferranti’s told me he supports the swimming complex, citing costs to cancelation and the 30 percent reduction already accomplished. “The work to bring down the cost of the project is to the board’s credit. The pandering over the last few weeks is not,” he said.

“Breaking the contract would also adversely impact our ability to move forward with other projects that are priorities in the future,” de Ferranti said. “And there is a need for this facility in this part of the county.”

***

The Black Heritage Museum of Arlington last February advanced from a longtime virtual project to an actual destination with display space.

On July 26, 150 visitors came to the 3108 Columbia Pike site to see Long and Foster realtor Tim Landis’s collection of African-American-themed photos and artifacts (19th-century bottles, spurs and horseshoes). He dug them up in Rosslyn and elsewhere.

Landis, who has been an Arlington history fan with a metal detector since age 12, plans to donate part of his collection to the museum.

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