Old School Site, New-Style Debate

A panel's proposal for the future of the Wilson School site envisions high-rises and a recreation area but would preserve some sections of the school. The School Board is to vote on the plan June 7.
A panel's proposal for the future of the Wilson School site envisions high-rises and a recreation area but would preserve some sections of the school. The School Board is to vote on the plan June 7. (Arlington County Public Schools)
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 24, 2007

Amid the forest of high-rises lining the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor, tensions have risen so precipitously around one 3.5-acre patch of property that the debate has made it onto YouTube.

Part of the tract, including the 1910-era building that became the Wilson School, is owned by the Arlington public school system; the rest, including a firehouse and a basketball court, is owned by the county government. Late last year, the school system formed a 28-member committee to study and suggest uses for the site, which if developed as office or retail space could bring the school system millions of dollars a year, officials said.

But many civic leaders and community activists have other ideas. Some would like to see the school designated a historic landmark; others want to see it turned into an arts center. Some want a Montessori school at the site. Still others, lamenting the lack of green space in the area, want the rows of trailers now there to be removed and replaced with an athletic field; and some say the school system should save the building in case enrollment increases and a new school is needed.

Many steps remain before anything is done with the site. But this being the Internet age, and Arlington being a technology mecca, activists have taken their fight online. In "Save Wilson School," a slick, 10-minute film by resident Wayne Westbrook, civic leaders and community members speak in favor of preserving the school and the area around it. So far, the film ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JChPyzRBnTY) has been viewed about 500 times on YouTube.

"Wilson School is the oldest school still part of the Arlington public system," said Stan Karson, president of the Radnor/Fort Myer Heights Civic Association and the Wilson School representative on the committee. "It was visited a number of times by President Wilson in his famous Pierce-Arrow car."

"I'd just like to be able to enjoy a little green space here in the middle of our urban environment," said Stephanie Arthur, a resident who regularly takes her dog there.

Tom Meyer, a condominium broker who appears in the film, said too much development can hurt property values. "The quality of living declines," he said. "Views get blocked; there's less green space for children, for views, and for overall mental health."

"What are we going to have in this neighborhood in five, 10, 20 years?" said Bardia Saeedi, chairman of the Rosslyn Arts Consortium, who advocates using the site for an arts center. "Are we going to just have another condo development that's going to look like exactly what we have already or something a little bit different?" Saeedi said.

The 97-year-old Wilson School, also known as the Woodmont-Wilson School, hasn't been used as a permanent elementary school since 1969 because of changes in the area's demographics. It originally was built in a neoclassical style, with a portico and cupola, but additions over the years have obscured much of its historic look. Located on Wilson Boulevard, it currently houses a Mongolian Saturday school and has been used as a temporary school site when other Arlington public schools have undergone renovations.

In March, the school system study committee, with members from the schools, the county and the community, recommended that about two-thirds of the site be leased to a developer -- who could build an eight- to 12-story building there -- for about $2.3 million annually, with adjustments for inflation. The lease money would help offset the cost of construction projects at other schools, according to the committee report.

The proposal also includes an athletic field and a plaza, and it keeps some historic elements of the school, while allowing for floors to be added for school system use. Last month, Superintendent Robert G. Smith recommended that the School Board approve the proposal, and the board is slated to vote on it June 7.

But Mark Antell, president of North Rosslyn Civic Association, said he vehemently opposes the plan, which would eliminate the popular basketball court and calls for a smaller athletic field than one that was there a decade ago. He said he wants the three rows of trailers removed and the field under them restored. "Boy, we miss it," he said. "You can't have a community without a playing field. . . . We've got 15,000 people in Rosslyn, and we don't have a lot of open space."

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