LittleGavin Johnston, at four months, was a little young to appreciate the Windgate Condominium's first-ever Easter egg hunt in its 11-year existence. But when Gavin and his neighbors scamper about for eggs next year, there may be a change in the landscape next to Four Mile Run Creek in Arlington. He may be able to peer across the creek and see a new minimum security prison on property less than 80 yards away.
If Arlington County gets its way, a 130-unit detention center will, by next spring, house up to 70 prisoners, 40 homeless men and women, and 20 more victims of substance abuse for first-time, non-medical treatment of their dependency. Arlington County wants to acquire 6.8 acres next to Barcroft Park, used extensively for its softball facilities, tennis courts, basketball court, picnic facilities and a tot lot for small children. It's only a few yards away from an elementary school, two bike paths, shopping, 24-hour Metro bus stops and, perhaps ironically, the Claremont precinct polling place.
South Arlington homeowners and neighborhood associations are up in arms over these plans. And no wonder. Only Four Mile Run Creek and a small, wooded area separate scores of condominium complexes, apartments and single-family homes from the new prison site. My work takes me away from home frequently for overnight trips, leaving my wife alone to protect the household.
Even more disconcerting is the county's reasoning for the project. It argues the facility would allow for "parkland expansion" (for whom?) and stop "intense alternative industrial development." Why is a $4.7 million prison preferable to economic development that expands the county's tax base, provides jobs and reduces pressure on property tax rates, which have been going through the roof? And why is a prison even necessary when a new 656-unit jail will be completed within two years, providing a third more beds than are currently used?
The county makes a good case for building new shelter for the homeless. And everyone wants victims of drug abuse to get help for their chemical dependencies. But a prison near schools and a playground for children, under the guise of "parkland expansion" and the prevention of economic development along an obviously industrial corridor? Come on!
Fortunately, public hearings have been scheduled by the Arlington County Planning Commission on June 11 and by the county board on June 23. Concerned south Arlington citizens will have ample opportunity to make their views known.
-- Kelly Johnston