An estimated $600,000 sculpture is not the way to spend Defense Department money at the Mark Center, opponents said.
Some 6,400 federal employees will be arriving this fall to a new building at the Mark Center at Seminary Road and Interstate 395, but there are about $20 million in road improvements that still have no funding.
Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D) said that, while he supports art, “at a time when we are fighting to prevent the traffic nightmare the Mark Center poses for Department of Defense employees, local residents and all commuters on I-395, this is a very questionable way to spend $600,000. It would seem that money could be much more appropriately used to improve transportation infrastructure around the site, rather than to depict a children’s fairy tale.”
Alexandria’s Arts Commission is meeting with the artists Friday on which of the four proposed sculptures will be added to the site. A decision will be made in the coming weeks. The artwork includes a 10-foot fairy riding a toad and a 32-foot-long colorful glass wall.
An $80 million ramp from the HOT lanes to Seminary Road is being studied by the state Department of Transportation as part of the plan to deal with the employees moving to the new offices in September under the federal base relocation and closure, or BRAC, process.
“It is an outrage,” said David Dexter, chairman of the BRAC-133 citizens advisory group. “I’m all for public art and hopefully something is done with respect to that, but I think we need to get our priorities in order.”
The advisory group said they requested public art years ago when they first started this process. They were given updates but were not aware of any selections.
“The next thing I know, I see a notice from the Parks and Recreation Department that there was a viewing of the four finalists,” Dexter said.
Donald Buch, a member of the advisory group, asked, “Why did all of this happen effectively in secret? Seven days in advance of the decision?”
Several members of the group asked to slow down the process and allow the community to participate, but were told that would hold up the building’s opening.
“Unfortunately, due to the critical timeframe in which we are operating, the Corps will not be able to delay the current process,” Jim Turkel, director of the Belvoir Integration Office for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, wrote in an e-mail.
Buch also said the artwork should be somewhere where the public can enjoy it, not along a wall near a bus terminal.
“To stick it in a bus terminal where the same 2,500 people are going to see it day in and day out seems odd to me,” he said.
The Alexandria Public Arts Committee, part of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts, has been working on getting artwork at the Mark Center for more than a year and a half, said Matthew Harwood, co-chairman of the committee.
GSA guidelines include public art with all federal buildings, except Defense Department projects.
“Frankly, most military facilities are on military posts. It doesn’t fall within the spirit of the GSA concern of a federal building going into a community,” Harwood said. “The idea, I think, is that the federal building give back to the community.”
The committee can chose as many as three works for the bus depot site, two pieces along a wall that faces the community and an island near the entrance of the station, Harwood said. The general public will be able to use the bus facility. The military is paying up to $600,000 for all of the artwork.
“There has been a lot of negativity that has come through this process and this is a way to have something positive, a little positive, come out of it,” he said.
Update, April 4, 4:32 p.m.:
The U.S. Army has put the public art project on hold while it considers alternatives, said Jim Turkel, director of the Belvoir Integration Office for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Turkel said the Army is putting together its position on the artwork and that position will be made known in the coming days.
This post has been updated since it was first published.