Lorton Plan Captive To Prison's History

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The debate over the former Lorton prison's history may be over, but the fight for Laurel Hill's future has only just begun.

Last week, the Board of Supervisors voted to ignore clear public sentiment, indisputable facts and well-reasoned arguments. Instead, the board chose to blindly follow the narrow interests of a small group of historic preservationists over the larger interests of the communities affected and the county as a whole.

As a result of this "historic" overreach, widely supported plans to adaptively reuse and redevelop the former Lorton prison property, now known as Laurel Hill, have been made significantly more complicated, more expensive and less likely to be implemented.

Contrary to what some have suggested, the National Register historical nomination debate was not a choice between preserving the Lorton prison or tearing it down. No such resolution was offered, debated or voted upon by the board, or by any community or civic association.

Rather, the question before the board was whether it was essential to rush forward and preserve each and every prison building regardless of the cost, or whether it was wiser to take the time to determine how best to adaptively reuse as many historically valuable buildings as possible in a manner that would provide benefit to the community at a price the county could afford.

Sadly, the board chose unlimited preservation over responsible adaptive reuse, and the cost to Fairfax County taxpayers of preserving all 512 acres and 194 buildings and structures could run as high as $40 million.

For years, historic preservation activists have sold this historic nomination as a Progressive-Era prison built without walls. Last week, however, the board was told that the penitentiary, which opened decades after the end of the Progressive Era and was designed with 25-foot-high walls and steel bars to lock up the District's worst murderers, rapists and drug dealers, was an essential part of this "Progressive-Era" history. Other "historic" Lorton prison items added to the National Register include chain link fences, an armored car garage, steam tunnels, ventilation shafts, exercise yards and even two very large sewage tanks.

The board's decision may also have severely limited adaptive reuse options for receiving one federal historic tax credit and completely eliminated the possibility of receiving another federal tax credit; the net result could be a loss of up to $10 million in federal funding. Furthermore, it has been estimated that the cost of preserving every single prison building and structure could require as much as $30 million in additional county funding.

That's why the Laurel Hill Project Advisory Citizens Oversight Committee -- the body created by the Board of Supervisors to guide the adaptive reuse process -- recommended that the nomination be deferred, scaled back, rewritten and resubmitted later next year.

Sadly, there was a genuine compromise on the table that could have supported the Laurel Hill Task Force's adaptive reuse plan, enabled the Lorton Arts Foundation plan to move forward, respected preservation of truly historic buildings and structures, and limited the cost to the county. Under this proposal, the workhouse part of the nomination would have been endorsed to go forward, while the reformatory and penitentiary part would be deferred -- not defeated -- until serious financial and legal questions were answered. Despite support for this plan from the Oversight Committee, the Lorton Arts Foundation and all of the affected communities, the board refused to consider it.

While the debate over the National Register nomination is over, there is still time to learn from our mistakes so that we are not condemned to repeat them. The Board of Supervisors needs to review its position on historic preservation, renew its commitment to adaptive reuse and work with the community to find common-sense ways to preserve history, without rewriting it.

Dickinson also is treasurer of the South Springfield Alliance, an umbrella group of homeowner associations.

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