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Tide Turns for Arlington Mill

Community center almost fell victim to recession; now ready to formally open.

A public plaza is adjacent to the new community center, which is located at the intercession of Dinwiddie Street and Columbia Pike.

A public plaza is adjacent to the new community center, which is located at the intercession of Dinwiddie Street and Columbia Pike. Photo by Michael Lee Pope.

Four years ago, the fate of the Arlington Mill Community Center looked moribund. The global economy was crashing, and the developer working with the county to develop a community center and residential property was in serious trouble. Financing for the development was evaporating. And so was the dream of a new high-tech community center on Columbia Pike. So county leaders decided to move forward with the project anyway, removing the residential units and giving taxpayers the risk of developing the project without a private partner.

"This is a neighborhood that hasn't really had a community center for some time now," said George May, chief of the facilities, design and construction bureau. "The old community center has been closed for some time in anticipation of this project, so now they have a much larger community center."

Now, four years after the original plan was spiked, a new $36 million Arlington Mill Community Center is ready for its moment in the sun. The center has already opened to the public informally, and next week county leaders will assemble at the five-story building to formally dedicate the latest addition to the county's public sphere. For county officials, it represents a long and winding road that began seven years ago and is finally coming to a much-anticipated conclusion.

"It's located next to two of our most favored trails in the county, the W&OD trail and the Four Mile Run trail," said Caroline Temmermand, division chief of parks and natural resources. "So people have a lot of opportunities to get to it from the surrounding community without ever getting in the car."

THE STORY of the Arlington Mill Community Center begins in November 2006, when voters approved a $26 million bond referendum to redevelop the existing Arlington Mill Community Center — a 25,000-square-foot Safeway that had been converted to a community center where Four Mile Run intersects with the pike. County Board members approved a use permit in July 2008 for the development of a community center and public plaza with private apartments. The developer even secured tax credits from the Virginia Housing Development Authority.

Then the bottom fell out. The global financial crisis struck at the end of 2008, and financing for the project evaporated. The contract with Public Private Alliances was terminated in the fall of 2009.

"Reaching the conclusion to not move forward with the approved plan for Arlington Mill project has been difficult and disappointing," according to a 2009 staff report. "Unfortunately, funding for market rate portions of the housing project is just not available in this market and it is unclear when it would become available again."

The decision put county officials in a bind because they had already closed the existing community center in anticipation of opening a new one. Arlington leaders considered reopening the abandoned building, although that would have been difficult because it would have involved investing about half a million dollars in a building that would have been open for only a few months. They eventually came to the conclusion that the they couldn't justify the disruption to programs and services that would have to move into the building then move back out in short order.

"Although I would have rather not had so many delays, I do believe that we have ended up with a much-improved community center," said Linda Laduke, who lives near the community center. "It has retail space for coffee, a gymnasium and a plaza, which I see brimming with community activity."

IN JANUARY 2010, County Board members granted a contract to David Carter Scott for design services and approved a new county-funded project specialist at $125,000 a year. The old plan would have delivered a six-story building with 39,000 square feet of community uses, 3,000 square feet of retail and 33 residential units. The new plan had a five-story community center building with 64,537 square feet of community uses and 2,250 square feet of retail. It's a LEED certified building, although some have criticized the county for fudging the numbers.

"This project will add to the county's carbon footprint at the same time you are taking credit for reducing it," said critic Robert Atkins. "This is clearly a fraud perpetrated on the public."