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What To Do About Wilson?

School and county officials ponder future of Rosslyn property, and explore possibility of public-private partnership.

Last year, while Nottingham Elementary School underwent a $12 million makeover, the teachers and students inhabited the aging Wilson building in downtown Rosslyn.

Space constraints in the old facility, such as having only one multi-purpose room, meant that curriculums had to be juggled. Many of the schools’ 400 students were taught in one of the eight massive trailers that occupy the building’s back yard. It was a challenging year, teachers and parents agreed.

In August the renovations at Nottingham were completed, and the students returned to their regular school in the northwest corner of Arlington. No other schools or regular programs are using the Wilson building this school year, and there’s a chance the site and trailers will remain fallow come next fall.

This means a major piece of real estate in the heart of Rosslyn, where space is at a premium, will be unused for at least 12 months. And that has sparked a debate between school officials, community leaders and parents over what should be done with the property.

Some are advocating that the trailers be removed and the building remains as is. Others are calling for the school system to sell the property and use the proceeds elsewhere. And many are hoping school officials work with the county and a private developer to recreate the site for an innovative mix of commercial, residential and public uses.

"We are completely open to looking at a whole host of alternatives for the Wilson site," Arlington Schools Superintendent Robert Smith said.

THE WILSON BUILDING is just one of a number of school facilities whose long-term future is up in the air. To help school officials identify the best use for that site and several others, including the Career Center, the School Board created a 24-person study group, featuring administrators, teachers, parents and community leaders.

As part of the study, the members of the commission are charged with determining both the economic value of the Wilson site and the role it plays in the community. The group is expected to report its initial findings in early spring.

In 1997, the school system decided to use the Wilson facility as swing space and the first major tenant was Key Elementary School, which was undergoing construction. To the dismay of the surrounding community, trailers were placed on the soccer fields behind the building to house the overflow of students.

"We used to see people playing soccer there all the time," said Mark Antell, president of the North Rosslyn Civic Association. "It was the only playfield within a mile of downtown Rosslyn."

Community leaders have been lobbying school officials to remove the trailers now that they are no longer being used as classrooms. "First and foremost we need to get the trailers off of there and have our playing field back," Antell said.

But school officials have yet to determine whether they will be needed in the future as swing space. If the High School Continuation program has to vacate the Arlington Mill Community Center on Columbia Pike, which is owned by the county and being redeveloped, the school system will need to house those classes in the Wilson building.

That decision will not be made until February, Smith said. There is also the possibility that programs currently in the Reed School, such as a day-care center for children of school system employees, will need to be moved to the Wilson site when construction begins on a new joint school-county facility next summer.

What all sides agree upon is that the building, which was constructed in 1910 and served as a neighborhood school until 1968, is an antiquated facility that no longer meets the needs of a 21st century school.

Next door to the school facility is the similarly aging Rosslyn Fire Station, which must be replaced in coming years, county officials said. The county is open to redeveloping the site to include the fire station and private use, or might be willing to swap the land with a developer for another parcel close by.

"It has always been the county’s expectation that it would utilize the value of the site to achieve either a replacement on site or on a nearby location," said Hank Leavitt, a county planner.

County officials have had preliminary discussions with the adjacent property owner, Stuart H. Miller, about a joint redevelopment project, which could include the Wilson school site. A 7-story office building currently sits on Miller’s property.

Miller has yet to have any formal negotiations with the county on the possibility of a public-private partnership on the three parcels of land, but adds that it is an intriguing idea. "We’re happy with our property but we think the potential to maximize" the value of all three sites may be greater, he added.

ROSSLYN RESIDENTS ARE ADAMANT that the space stay in the hands of the school system. "We would be distressed to see that property go for private use," said Stan Karson, head of the neighboring Radnor/Ft. Myers Heights Civic Association.

It is the only community facility nearby that can house events and festivals, Karson added.

Rosslyn is dominated by high-rise condominiums, and there are not enough children in the neighborhoods to necessitate a neighborhood school. But a decade down the road the demographics of Rosslyn may have shifted significantly and a school might be needed there, Antell said.

If the site is either sold or turned into a public-private partnership, there is little chance of ever having a regular school again on the property, Antell added.

School Board member Dave Foster countered that it is "unlikely" that the neighborhood will need another school in the near future.

Because of the high price of land in Rosslyn, the school system should at least listen to purchase offers from developers, Foster said.

"We should not slam the door on property exchange possibilities if we can find equally good property elsewhere at a lower price," said Foster, who added that he would like to see the trailers removed as soon as possible so the community can again have use of the soccer fields.

New School Board member Sally Baird, who heard the concerns of the Rosslyn community during a debate last month, contends that selling the property would prove to be a mistake down the road.

"The idea of giving up school property — particularly in an area without much school property — seems to me not the wisest of long-term decisions," said Baird. "We have to think not of what we would derive today, but what we would leave the community 20 years out."

Instead, Baird said, she would like to see a public-private partnership that retains a flexible space that the can be adapted to fit the needs of the school system for decades to come.