The petition was signed by about 400 people who use Arlington's aging Lee Community Center, home of one of the county's largest senior centers, and the message to the Arlington County Board was clear: "We deserve better."
"Our ranks include personal battles of disability, illness, loneliness and old age," the petition, signed in March, stated. "But we are not powerless. . . . Intentionally under-budgeting essential, needed physical improvements, inside and outside, has been dwarfed by foot-dragging, inactivity, political procrastination and double-talk."
After years of waiting, the 74-year-old building--beset with heating, ventilation, parking, accessibility and other problems--may finally be getting the much-needed improvements that it deserves, patrons say.
On May 22, the Arlington County Board approved plans for an expanded renovation of the center at 5722 Lee Hwy., raising total construction costs to about $1,060,000--far more than the more than $600,000 originally planned for the project.
John McManus, 75, a community activist who has become one of the center's most vocal defenders, said patrons are pleased about the allocation of more money. But with construction originally planned to start last month, he said, they are wary that they will see it happen in their lifetimes. "It's a sense of hope," said McManus, a retired social worker who belongs to a poker group at the center. "But to gain implementation, it's going to require the same people who signed these petitions to stay with it. . . . We'll be dust before we see this. In my own little poker group, we've had three deaths."
Hank Leavitt, director of the county's Office of Support Services, said construction could start as early as next spring. Changes to the center, which also houses a cooperative preschool, include replacing the heating and ventilation system, fixing up the bathrooms, adding parking spaces and making the building more accessible to the disabled, Leavitt said.
A new and central entrance will be added to the building and will have an overhang for inclement weather, Leavitt said. Cosmetic changes will include new paint, carpeting and display cases for artwork, he said.
The Lee center, which is in the Leeway Overlee area of the county and is one of 13 community centers, was built in 1925 as a school, with an addition added in 1957, county officials said.
Over the years, it became clear that the facility was more suitable for seniors and preschoolers than teenagers and grade-school children, said Toni Hubbard, director of the county's Parks, Recreation and Community Resources department.
"It's an important building for us," Hubbard said. "The county clearly is committed to improving the building. I'm very confident we're going to be going forward."
Board members said the decision to allocate more funding for the Lee center project was the result of continued dialogue with the community as part of the county's Vision 2020 plan, an initiative to identify important community facilities in the county, including new construction and renovation.
While there has clearly been a need to renovate the Lee center, the project and others have been deferred over the years for more pressing needs, including improvements to county schools, said board member Chris Zimmerman (D).
"Obviously the users wanted it to be a higher priority," Zimmerman said. "Now it's at a higher priority."
The popularity of the Lee senior center has grown rapidly in recent years, as the community has aged. Now more than 1,000 people regularly enjoy the center, which has three musical groups, as well as line dancing and ballroom dancing classes, craft groups, oil painting, wood carving and a walking club.
McManus said the original plans for the renovation did not reflect the needs of the community it serves. Many users scoffed at the county's Vision 2020 plan because it symbolizes a date that will not be in their futures, he said.
"This has been 12 years that they've put off doing the place," McManus said. "To tell these people year after year, and the promises never come through."