Where convicted felons once slept inside the Lorton prison complex in Northern Virginia, there are now apartments with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances.
A former shower area has been replaced by a community swimming pool, while the shuttered prison’s enormous dining hall is now home to a fitness center and a yoga room.
It’s all part of a 328-residence development named “Liberty,” an ironic reference to the prison that the D.C. Department of Corrections operated on the site until it was closed in 2001.
The project’s name also reflects the desire of many in this fast-growing part of southern Fairfax County to leave that past behind.
“At one time, Lorton was the armpit of Fairfax County,” county Supervisor Daniel G. Storck (D-Mount Vernon) said during a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday. “It’s hard to imagine those words now when you look around.”
The $190 million development, scheduled for completion in 2019, will include space for restaurants and stores — the latest of a series of improvements for a community long defined by the prison, an industrial landfill and a rock quarry.
As more people have moved into new residential developments in Lorton during the past 15 years, boosting the population to about 20,000, the former prison site — renamed Laurel Hill — has gained a golf course, the Workhouse Arts Center studios and an equestrian center.
Fairfax County added sewer lines, widened Lorton Road and built a high school and a middle school. The county also spent $12.3 million on infrastructure improvements related to the Liberty project, which will offer a mixture of apartments, townhouses and single-family homes, some of them subsidized as low-income housing.
“This is becoming a destination area,” said Dale Rumberger, president of the South County Federation, an umbrella group of civic and homeowners associations. “More people are wanting to be here.”
During the 1990s, Rumberger served on a county commission that monitored inmate escapes from the Lorton complex.
He said he has mixed feelings about the way the developers of the Liberty project have used the prison’s notoriety in promotional efforts — including the image of a prison guard tower that is part of the logo in their marketing brochures.
Much of the complex is historically protected, so the developers — the Alexander Co. and Elm Street Development — had to incorporate old brick walls, various security features and both cramped and cavernous spaces into the design.
The units still have bars on the windows, and an entryway into one set of apartments includes an ominous-looking security gate that was used when the building was a place for inmates’ dental care. The guard towers have been reworked as architectural accents to the soaring brick archways and columns outside several buildings.
“I don’t like having to go back and extol the virtues of the prison, because there are not a lot of virtues to a prison,” Rumberger said. “But at the same time, boy, does that place have some positive energy to it.”
Dave Vos, a project manager for the Alexander Co., said the construction work has been complicated. Some of the century-old buildings needed structural improvements, while other parts of the prison site didn’t initially make sense as places where families and businesses would want to be. “That was the biggest challenge: finding the uses, the location for those uses,” Vos said.
County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) predicted that, despite some initial skepticism, the project will become a major draw.
“People kind of like trendy, quirky housing,” she said. “I think a lot of people are going to be interested.”