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County OKs Swanson Wing

Controversy surrounding addition could change approval process for future projects.

Developers may find themselves being hammered at during County Board meetings, as board members haggle over aesthetic details, sidewalks and affordable housing in various projects.

Last weekend, though, board members were more restrained as Arlington Public Schools officials sought approval for renovations to Swanson Middle School.

Board members approved construction of a two-story addition to the front of the school, at 5800 Washington Blvd, which was originally built in 1939 and last renovated in 1995. The new wing will increase the school’s capacity, eliminating the need for classrooms currently located in trailers outside the building

In approving the addition, board members accepted the recommendation of County Manager Ron Carlee, but rejected the recommendation of the county Planning Commission, who urged the board to defer approval of the project.

Planning commissioners voted 7-3 to send plans back to the drawing board because of several concerns, including parking, placement of the addition and impact on nearby neighbors, many of whom opposed the project.

“It’s clearly become a land use problem,” said Lori Rottenberg, one such neighbor. “No one who looks at this thing can say it’s the best way to add on to this existing structure.”

Even some who support the project agreed that designs were less than perfect. But the addition was the best option, considering the “many constraints” of the site, said Mark Troppe, a supporter from the Dominion Hills neighborhood.

Those constraints included the size and layout of the school property, said Teresa Freidlander, spokeswoman for the Key Elementary PTA, one of several PTA’s to support the renovation. The project was also limited by the placement of the current school building, and the budget for renovations.

Despite the plan’s limitations, Friedlander said, “we need to end debate and start the building process.”

CONTROVERSY SURROUNDED much of the planning process, which aimed to relieve overcrowding at the school by increasing Swanson’s capacity, from 694 to 815 students. Currently, there are 728 students enrolled at the school.

The project first appeared on the schools’ CIP in 2000. When board members voted 5-0 to approve final plans Thursday, May 22, even Mary Hynes, a school board member, called the plans “disappointing.”

Some Westover residents objected that officials ignored design problems for the sake of timeliness. School officials want the new wing completed in time for the start of the 2004-05 school year. Approval of the project was propelled by a “sense of urgency, not merit,” said Laura Baker, a Westover resident.

Urging County Board members not to approve the addition, architect Don Hawkins said the situation was “a question whether anxiety of possibly not getting it done right away should trump quality.” Hawkins was a member of the first graduating class at Wakefield High School, and building design can have an impact on students’ educational experience, he said.

IT’S NOT JUST a question of timing, school superintendent Robert Smith said Saturday. “We’ve already gone through a full public process in the design for Swanson Middle School.”

The end result of that process is a design that will secure Swanson’s future, said Dawn Phillips, who sat on the Building Level Planning Committee, which provided input in planning for the school. “The Swanson community doesn’t just want an addition, we want this addition,” she said.

But several officials did say timing was an important factor in deciding to move ahead with the plans. “I don’t believe we can afford the time to redesign, nor can we afford the cost to redesign,” said Smith.

“Unfortunately we do have cost constraints,” said Favola. “I’m not going to say that this couldn’t be redesigned in a better way if we had unlimited money.”

Students, too, said renovations just can’t wait. Katelyn Davis, a Swanson eighth-grader, spent last year shuffling between classes in the building and in trailers, due to the shortage of classroom space.

“It took five minutes to walk from the trailers to band, and I had to be on time,” she said. Bad weather meant wet clothes, books and musical instruments for Davis and her classmates. “Being in the trailers is a difficult challenge that other students shouldn’t have to deal with,” she said.

CONTROVERSY SURROUNDING Swanson could bring changes in the way school projects are approved. “We came extremely late in the process,” Terry Savela, the Planning Commissioner at Saturday’s board meeting.

When a private developer submits building plans, several committees under the Commission work with the applicant for months to refine design plans. On school projects, county planners and architects miss those early negotiation stages.

Ferguson advised school officials to consider changing the process. “I think that having contact with the Planning Commission at an earlier time would be helpful,” he said.

Supporters of the renovation criticized commissioners who voted for deferral. But Jay Fisette, a county board member, said it was the process, not Commissioners, responsible for controversy.

“The Planning Commission has been in a bit of a hot seat on this one,” he said. “I think it is fully appropriate for the Planning Commission to raise those issues and do what they did.”

HE TOO SUGGESTED changes could be necessary in the approval process for school designs. “It’s very hard sitting in my seat to affirm that it was the perfect process. It probably wasn’t,” he said.

School Board Chair Elaine Furlow balked at the idea of revamping the process, which she called “exhaustive.”

There was division even on the Planning Commission over what went wrong. Planning Commissioner John Vihstadt said the process can’t be blamed for late involvement on the county side.

“The Planning Commission has an opportunity to get involved almost immediately in the process,” he said. “If the Planning Commission and the neighbors did not get involved early enough, then the Planning Commission and the neighbors have a responsibility in that. I think [the process] does work, and I think it did work in this case.”