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Washington-Lee Design Proves Too Lofty for Arlington

The design for the new Washington-Lee High School is nearly 30 feet taller than Arlington's height limit.
The design for the new Washington-Lee High School is nearly 30 feet taller than Arlington's height limit. (Arlington County Public Schools)
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 7, 2005

After nearly five years of planning and community debate about the new Washington-Lee High School building, a hefty bond referendum and months of rising cost estimates that are closing in on $100 million, Arlington officials learned this week that county staffers had overlooked a significant detail.

As designed, the four-story building would be nearly 30 feet taller than Arlington's height limit and cannot legally be built.

Realizing the mistake, school officials this week rushed to the county's planning commission asking for a change to the county's zoning laws to permit a 75-foot-tall high school building.

Planning commissioners were not amused.

"Are you telling me that three weeks ago, you realized that the building as designed was too tall for the site?" asked commission member Peter Fallon. "And I'm supposed to believe this wonderful project has vetted out all these issues?"

School officials said they had assumed they could build the 75-foot tall-building with a waiver from the county. They said they only recently realized that things would be more complicated and that they would need to pursue a change in the law.

"We had some discussions with the county and were led to believe that the height would not be an issue," said Clarence Stukes, assistant superintendent for facilities. "It was a case of miscommunication."

In a 6 to 3 vote, the planning commission approved the zoning change Thursday night, sending the issue to the County Board, which will deal with it May 17.

In a county with a process of citizen input known as the "Arlington Way" -- dozens of neighborhood meetings on such mundane issues as parking permits and storm water runoff are commonplace -- several planning commissioners said they were not pleased to learn that residents received little notice of the proposed zoning change to allow bigger school buildings. The county is considering a controversial proposal to limit the construction of outsized homes.

The height issue also could affect future high school projects, including upgrades for Yorktown High School, planning commissioners said.

"It's awful to be in this position," said commission member Lisa Chavez, who voted against the measure. "It's a very unfair process. I am not happy with it at all."

It was the latest bit of bad news about the massive reconstruction of the county's first high school, which has been a focus of public attention since it was proposed four years ago. The project was approved last year.

Construction estimates for Washington-Lee have risen from $82.8 million last year to $95.2 million recently and are going up by $1 million a month, school officials said. That's before a single construction company has bid on the project.

"It's sobering," said Elaine Furlow, a school board member. "The height is the least of our problems."

The school system hopes to break ground on the building in January, begin moving students in 2007 and complete the project by 2009. The 358,000-square-foot school -- which also will have a 19-acre campus with new athletic fields and a swim center -- will sit behind the old building, a landmark just off Interstate 66 at Washington Boulevard and Quincy Street. The old building eventually will be demolished.

School officials blamed the rise in the construction cost on an increasingly competitive labor market and on rising costs for steel, concrete and other construction materials, according to Susan Robinson, assistant superintendent for finance and management services.

But Beth Wolffe, the incoming chairman of the Arlington County Civic Federation's schools committee, wondered why the school system could not have foreseen the changes in the construction market last fall, when voters approved a $78.1 million schools bond, $72 million of which is slated for the new high school.

"I think they should have made more competent estimates, or they should have been more candid. Their estimates were painfully wrong," Wolffe said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company