The only thing that John Reardon was able to establish at the end of the April 11 public hearing on the proposed McLean Community Center (MCC) expansion plans was that there was very little to establish.
“I don’t hear a strong consensus one way or the other,” said Reardon toward the close of the meeting.
Hired by the McLean Community Center Governing Board, Reardon acted as an outside facilitator for the second of what will ultimately be five public hearings in total. Held at Spring Hill Elementary School on Wednesday evening, April 11, the community meeting drew a far smaller crowd than the initial expansion public hearing held in the McLean Community Center on Wednesday, March 28. But despite a sparse crowd of approximately15 to16 attendees, the hearing ran the full allotted two hours, and generated a plethora of opinions on what people feel should and should not be done at the McLean Community Center.
Last fall, the McLean Community Center Governing Board initiated a multi-month project to discern whether or not the community center should be expanded, and, if so, exactly how it should be expanded and what kinds of additional programs and facilities it should offer to local residents. To research the project, the board arranged to have George Mason University conduct several random surveys throughout the small tax district that comprises those residents who pay a percentage of their property tax to fund the McLean Community Center.
The Governing Board reviewed the results of the surveys and on Feb. 28, approved two conceptual proposals for expansion of the McLean Community Center — a preferred option, and a secondary option that would be less costly. The board’s preferred option proposes building a new two-story Teen Center at the current Old Firehouse site, a new fitness studio, dance studio and rehearsal hall, and 100-seat “Black Box” theater. It also calls for the modification of the main McLean Community Center facility on Ingleside Avenue, which would include creating a larger children’s art room, installing sound-proofing in the Community Hall and upgrading the center’s vending machines. The board’s less expensive, alternative option suggests renovating the Old Firehouse to include a multi-use fitness studio space, adding a 100-seat Black Box theater to the existing Ingleside Avenue building, upgrading its Community Hall and vending machines and enlarging the space for children’s art classes by modifying the downstairs conference rooms.
The board then arranged to have several public hearings in order to present the two options to interested residents and gain a sense of how they feel about the two proposals. As of this week, three of the five planned hearings have now been held at various locations in McLean.
“We really are in the very early, early stages of this,” said Jan Auerbach, vice-chair of the McLean Community Center Governing Board. “The reason why we’re holding these public meetings is to see if there is a consensus on what to do with the Old Firehouse building, so we can go back to the Board of Supervisors and tell them that we have a consensus.”
THE FIRST of those meetings was held at the McLean Community Center on March 28, and drew a sizable crowd — many of whom were neighbors of the center concerned about the impact of the construction and increased usage that any expansion of the center will entail. However, at the April 11 hearing held at Spring Hill Elementary School, discussion of the potential 100-seat Black Box theater dominated the evening. Representatives from several local community theater groups were present at the meeting, but seemed to come down on all sides of the issue.
Michael Scott, a board member of the McLean Community Players — the result of a recent merger between the Great Falls Players and the Community Alliance Supporting Theater (C.A.S.T.) — said that his organization was very supportive of the concept of having a Black Box theater at the Old Firehouse.
“With a Black Box theater, all kinds of possibilities open up,” said Scott. “We think the flexibility this affords is terrific for us and for the community.”
Scott noted that some of the McLean Community Players’ smaller dramatic productions did not need the 400-seat Alden Theatre, and would be better suited to a smaller, more informal space. In addition, Scott said that the downtown location of the Old Firehouse would mean that shows at its Black Box theater could potentially increase business for local vendors and restaurant owners.
Bill Glikbarg, also a member of the McLean Community Players, expressed his support for the Black Box theater as well.
“We are interested in the Black Box theater because we can bring more diversity, and more interesting theater to the community,” said Glikbarg.
However, Rachael Bail, president of the McLean Drama Company and a resident playwright, is not quite as enthusiastic about the concept.
“A Black Box theater is one type of theater, and we are very lucky to have the Alden Theatre, and the Black Box theater would be a step down for us,” said Bail.
“The McLean Drama Company has not been locked out of the Alden Theatre yet but we may well be,” said Bail. “But the Alden Theatre is for us in McLean — not for outside players.”
However, members of the McLean Community Center Governing Board disagree and noted that they felt that, in addition to providing a home for local community theater groups, the center should also provide local residents with a certain number of highly coveted outside productions as well.
“The Alden Theatre is not just for us, it’s also for the community to be able to enjoy special performances for their own enjoyment,” said Sean Dunn, chair of the Governing Board.
RESIDENTS of Ingleside Avenue are generally in favor of having the community center do the bulk of its expansion downtown at the Old Firehouse site, as that option would limit the impact on neighbors of the main community center facility. However, some residents are concerned that the Governing Board’s preferred option will encroach on the Teen Center, and destroy the character of the Old Firehouse.
“The Old Firehouse meant a lot, and still means a lot to many in our community,” said local historian Carol Herrick, who is chair of McLean and Great Falls Celebrate Virginia, a member of the McLean Historical Society, and a member of the Fairfax County History Commission. “It’s the pride of the community … I recognize that the Old Firehouse is not historic — it’s not old and it’s not an antique … but McLean does not have an icon. At first thought it seems ridiculous to think of the Old Firehouse as an icon, but what else do we have in McLean?”
Sheri Berman, a local resident, parent and member of the Safe Community Coalition (SCC), said that while she appreciates the history of the Old Firehouse, she is far more concerned with the future of the Teen Center.
“I think we have to look to our kids,” said Berman. “I think that having the Teen Center downtown is important — the kids said they like it downtown.”
Some residents question the need for a community center renovation at all. Ingleside Avenue resident Kerrie Dent attended the April 11 public hearing and said she felt the random community surveys were not a reliable representation of what the McLean community actually wants.
“I’ve talked to people about this survey, and it was never presented as ‘do you think we should expand the community center and increase the traffic on Ingleside?’” said Dent. “To ask those people on the phone if they want a dance studio or a theater, and then present it as this huge demand is to ask it way out of context in a vacuum, and is very misleading.”
Dent added that she feels that most people would say they would like to see a dance studio space or a theater when asked about such things during a random phone survey. However, she said that people would probably answer differently if they knew that their answers would lead to a proposal for a $4-7 million community center expansion outside of their front doors.
“I’m not questioning the validity of the statistics, but I have a little trouble with it being presented as there being a demand for these services,” said Dent.