Century-old Arlington school building to be sold for redevelopment

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified an early name for the school. It was never known as the Clarendon school. 


The Wilson School, shown in the 1930s. (  Arlington Heritage Alliance )

The Arlington School Board made official this week its intent to sell a century-old school on Wilson Boulevard so that it can be redeveloped.

The measure, which was approved Tuesday night, has roiled preservationists and local civic activists. It gave the superintendent authority to sign a non-binding letter of intent to sell the property to a developer Penzance Properties, LLC.

With the vote, the school in the 1600 block of Wilson will be included in a planning study of the West Rosslyn area. The county announced Wednesday it will appoint a working group of residents, business leaders and advocates to help develop a plan to guide the long-anticipated redevelopment.

In addition to the school, the area targeted for redevelopment includes a fire station and some adjacent property owned by the county board, an apartment building owned by the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing and a commercial building already owned by Penzance.

“This is a rare opportunity to meet community goals in a dense part of the county with little available land,” said county manager Barbara Donnellan in a press statement.

The county’s stated goals are to create a mixed use development that is similar in density to the surrounding area, that uses energy efficient and sustainable building principles and that includes affordable housing, a new fire station and a park and open space,

Local activists and preservationists are concerned that the goals do not include preserving a rare piece of educational history.

The Wilson School built in 1910 is one of the oldest existing public schools in Arlington.

It was originally known as the Fort Myer school, and was renamed the Wilson School in 1926, according to Arlington Public Library records.

The school has not been a full-time neighborhood elementary school since 1968, when Francis Scott Key School opened. But it has been used as a temporary location for other schools during renovations and has housed various community programs. Currently, a Mongolian School offers culture and language classes there on Saturdays.

The original neoclassical building had a rooftop cupola and a portico that have not survived.

“The building is a little worn out, but it could be restored to its glory,” said Eric Dobson, a board member for Preservation Arlington, an advocacy group. The organization has included the school on its list of “most endangered historic places.

The school board declined a request several years ago to designate the property a local historic district.

The property has a playground and an athletic field now covered with trailers. It offers one of “very, very few play areas” in the Rosslyn area, said Stan Karson, president of the Radnor/Fort Myer Heights Civic Association. Some local activists have advocated for keeping a school at the site, even if it’s part of a larger building.

The 23,000- student public school system, which has increased its enrollment by 25 percent in the past decade, is clamoring for more space as it continues to grow. But the most recent capital improvement plan did not include making use of the Wilson School.

Plans instead call for adding on to existing schools and building new schools with a minimum capacity of 600. The board’s motion said a school of that size would not fit on the Wilson property. The motion also said the decision is financially based.

“The Wilson Property represents significant value in the APS capital inventory,” it said

Before a sale is final, the school board needs to hold a public hearing and obtain approval from the county board.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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