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County Approves Design Contract for North Tract

Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee questions higher-than-expected costs.

Arlington County's budget for the North Tract — its plan to turn a 28-acre strip of industrial land near the 14th Street Bridge into a recreation center — was the subject of questioning from members of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee Tuesday. As the County Board prepared to approve a $6.6 million design contract for the project, some drew attention to the higher-than-expected cost for it.

"Every time we take another step, I get more excited about the project," said County Board Chairman Jay Fisette.

Arlington voters approved a $75.4 million parks and recreations bond in November 2004 that allotted $50 million for the North Tract plan. Yet projected costs for the North Tract grant only $5 million for the design phase, less than the price of the contract.

"The jury is still way out on this, but it's troubling that the numbers are higher than anticipated," said Wayne Kubicki, chairman of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Board. "I have a feeling the construction costs are going to come in appreciably higher than anticipated."

County officials said the plan is still within its budget.

"The answer is that it includes some of the cost that would have been in phase two," said Fisette. "It seems we're still on target."

Phase one of the North Tract plan, according to the Parks and Recreations Department, calls for the construction of an aquatics complex. The design includes a 50-meter swimming pool, a deep-water diving pool and a recreational pool for families. The complex will also house a series of synthetic grass sports fields and a warm-water pool for physical therapy.

During phase two, the county plans to acquire an adjacent industrial site that is now a vacant lot. The final product is expected to feature tennis and basketball courts, playgrounds, a running track and a pedestrian footbridge connecting it to Roaches Run.

"The money is covered within the $5 million bond," said Erik Beach, park project manager for the North Tract plan. "The contracts awarded at the board meeting are part of the overall cost."

The contract only seems too costly, Beach said, because it pays for phase one's designs and for part of phase two's.

"It was really done to integrate phase one and phase two, to keep the project running smoothly during the transition," said Beach.

He added that the county is seeking additional sources of funding.

"The County Board and County Manager have really stressed partnerships and private funding," said Beach.

PRIVATE FUNDING and partnerships with the local business community were part of the North Tract's funding plan in November. Before its adoption by the County Board, members of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Board in 2004 asked that the proposal be re-examined. Kubicki said funding for the project was questionable then, and it still is.

"The Board went on its merry way and put it on the ballot," Kubicki said. "It's my recollection that it was always the intent to use that $5 million for the design of phase one and parts of phase two."

The North Tract plan is the culmination of more than 50 public meetings to determine its fate. The land was acquired by Arlington County in the early 1990s when it exchanged building rights on the South Tract — a strip of land near Crystal City— for ownership of it in a deal with a group of developers. The only condition of the trade was that the site be used for recreation. The total estimated cost of the project, according to county numbers, is $90 million.