Image by Adam Fagen licensed under Creative Commons.

Arlington County is looking for a location to build a new public high school, and the search is now down to three sites. But if An effort to grant historic status to a complex of buildings near Washington-Lee High School that could have derailed the project was recently shot down succeeds, the plans might come off the rails.

Arlington Public Schools (APS) currently oversees three public high schools in the county - Yorktown High School in north Arlington, Washington-Lee High School near Ballston, and Wakefield High School in south Arlington. The county hopes to build a fourth high school for 1,300 students in order to relieve overcrowding.

Arlington Public Schools originally named nine potential locations for the new school, but by mid-April they had narrowed it down to three. All three options involve constructing a new school building or expanding existing facilities at an APS-owned location.

The Arlington Career Center. Image by Mike Lee licensed under Creative Commons.

Two of the proposals involve building the high school at current primary/middle school locations, which may involve the partial demolition or relocation of these existing institutions. These potential locations are Kenmore Middle School, located off of Arlington Boulevard near the Fairfax border, and the Arlington Career Center, which is co-located with the Columbia Pike Branch Library and Patrick Henry Elementary School.

The third proposed site is the Arlington Education Center, which houses the APS headquarters is in a 1960s-era building adjacent to Washington-Lee High School. The proposal calls for the Education Center and its adjoining structure, the David M. Brown Planetarium, to be demolished in order to make way for either a brand new school or an expansion of Washington-Lee.

The Ed Center, seen from North Quincy Street. Image by Google Maps.

Historic preservation concerns could complicate things

A new proposal to give historic designation to the Education Center has frustrated APS staff members, who are worried that such a designation would significantly narrow their options for a new school location. In her nominating letter, Planning Commission member Nancy Iacomini calls the space-age buildings “physical embodiments of the forward thinking of Arlington and our county’s hope for the future.” On March 30, InsideNova reported that this historic status is off the table, at least for now. 

In response to these historic preservation concerns, APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy has proposed a fourth option that would retain the existing Education Center building. His proposal calls for 600 students to be housed in the Ed Center, while the other 700 would be located at an expanded Career Center site near Columbia Pike. Murphy is expected to formally put forward this recommendation to School Board members on June 1st.

Image by NASA HQ PHOTO licensed under Creative Commons.

Let's build at the career center

Personally, I think the Arlington Career Center makes the most sense for a new school site, as it’s in a dense, diverse, and transit-accessible part of the county that isn't especially close to any current high schools.

The intersection of Columbia Pike and Walter Reed is one of Arlington's most well-preserved and still-bustling commercial centers, and building a full 1300-seat high school there makes perfect sense. An update to the existing Columbia Pike Branch Library and Arlington Career Center would be an excellent added benefit to the surrounding community.

Although I don't want to see the Ed Center buildings demolished, I don't think the "hybrid" plan to have 700 students in one school location and 600 students in another makes much sense.

A public hearing about the proposed school options is scheduled for June 15th. More information can be found at the Arlington Public Schools website.

Correction: This article originally said that Arlington was still considering historic status for the Ed Center, but the county board recently voted to stop considering that designation. 

Alex Cox is a transit analyst who currently lives and works in the Boston area. He is a longtime Greater Greater Washington reader, former intern at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, and a native of Arlington County. The views expressed here are his own.