In November 1998, more than 75 percent of Arlington County voters approved $4 million in bond money to renovate or replace the aging Westover Branch Library.
As is customary in a county known for communicating with residents, officials appointed a citizen committee, and plans emerged for an elaborate building. The building, a joint project with Arlington schools, would feature a library on the first floor, school offices on the second and an underground parking garage.
Yet more than five years later, there is no new library, even though the county has already spent $450,000 in design funds. And with the project behind schedule and at least several million dollars over budget, Arlington school officials recently notified the county they were pulling out of the project because they couldn't justify the expense. That has left county officials scrambling to redesign a scaled-down building and stay on a construction schedule that is not even supposed to start until next spring.
The best-case scenario: a new library sometime in fall 2006 -- a full eight years after voters first went to the polls to approve money for the facility.
"They have already spent $450,000 on a building they have now figured out they can't afford to build. They might not be quite at square zero, but they are close," said Wayne Kubicki, a member of the county's Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission who has been tracking the project.
Added Roger Morton, a neighborhood resident and member of the citizen committee: "I think this amount of time is really a disaster. They should have had a better idea of what they were doing before they went out for the bond money."
County officials agree that the experience has taught them much about how to plan for major building projects. They recently changed the county's procedures for future bond initiatives and now vow to first ask voters for design money before designing a specific plan and going back for the rest of the funds.
"In some respects, I'm as frustrated as the neighborhood is," said County Board Chairman Barbara A. Favola (D). "The county does have to get better in moving these things along, and we need to do a better job of managing these projects."
Favola said the library plan fell victim to being "too visionary" as county officials tried to balance the competing desires of residents, the schools and their own desire to create a signature building with an "urban village" feel.
"At this point," Favola said, "I think we need to move forward with whatever pieces we can move forward with."
People on all sides of the debate trace much of the problem back to the vaguely worded 1998 bond initiative, which was approved by 76 percent of voters. It called for $8 million in bond money to finance "the costs of expanding and renovating, or the building of" new libraries for both the Westover and Shirlington branches. The division of money wasn't specified, though it turned out to be $4 million for each library.
"At the time, there was no plan for what the Westover library was going to look like," said Michelle Ferguson, an assistant county manager. "It was always anticipated that it would take several years to get to the point of actually being able to construct a library because we had to go through a community process."
That process began with a series of community meetings in 2000. The citizen task force emerged from that and submitted its report in April 2001. By a 7 to 6 vote, the panel recommended that the library be moved from its current location, at the corner of North Lexington and 18th streets, to a contiguous parcel at Washington Boulevard and North McKinley Road. The current library, officials say, is cramped and has mechanical and structural problems that would be too costly to fix.
The proposed parcel for the new library, owned by Arlington schools, is currently the location of the Reed School, which contains a day-care center, a special education facility, a Head Start program and a children's school.
A joint county-school plan, for what became known as the Reed/Westover project, eventually emerged. It called for the combined building, with the library on the first floor and school offices on the second floor, to be used for staff development for teachers. The rest of the Reed School building would then be redone in a second phase of construction.
The original schedule called for construction of the initial phase to begin in summer 2003. But county and school officials realized that with so much time having elapsed, costs had escalated dramatically. County officials attribute the increase to rising construction costs and inflation over the past six years, combined with the expense of building an underground parking garage that many in the community had wanted. An underground garage is much more expensive than street-level parking.
In April, Arlington School Superintendent Robert G. Smith sent the school board a memo recommending that the school system pull out of the first phase of construction. In the memo, he said the school's share of constructing the library and the second-floor school offices had more than doubled, from $2 million to about $4.7 million.
"We thought it was a nice idea, a nice concept," Smith said in an interview. "But for the functions we were going to perform there, we decided we couldn't afford it."
The Arlington School Board last week approved Smith's recommendation, which calls for the schools to continue to oversee the second phase of construction -- renovating the rest of the existing Reed School.
But since the county and schools were to split the cost of constructing the library and second-floor school offices, the decision to pull out has forced the county to reevaluate the entire project.
There is about $3.5 million of the bond money remaining to build the library. Ferguson could not provide a precise figure on the overall cost but acknowledged that the total cost has risen significantly beyond the original $4 million budget. She said the planned underground garage had added between $2 million and $2.5 million alone.
Now, county officials are talking about a scaled-back one-story building with street-level parking. They vow to start the redesign process with a community meeting this month and are hoping to stick with the current schedule, which calls for construction to begin next spring and for the new library to open in fall 2006. Ferguson said the county does not believe any additional funds will be needed.
Chips Johnson, a neighborhood resident who has monitored the project for the Leeway Overlee Civic Association, said he is disappointed that the planned "monumental" building will likely not be built. But he said some residents have been reassured by the county's commitment to move quickly now.
"The worst case is we wind up with exactly the same functioning library they promised all along," he said. "We're still going to get the library we wanted."