Very little about the effort to build an aquatics center at Long Bridge Park has ever been easy — and that includes the project’s long-awaited groundbreaking.
Mother Nature had one last obstacle in store for county leaders as they gathered to finally turn some dirt at Long Bridge, delivering a formidable deluge that thoroughly soaked the construction site ahead of Tuesday’s ceremonial start to construction.
Yet even as the rain turned the ground to mush and tested the limits of attendees’ umbrellas, Arlington officials pressed on with a celebration of a project that’s been decades in the making.
“This project has endured worse than a little rain,” joked County Board Chair Katie Cristol.
Voters approved funding for the project in a 2012 bond referendum, but major cost overruns prompted county leaders to delay the facility’s construction two years later, and it quickly became a hot-button issue in that year’s local elections.
After a lengthy process of scaling back the project’s scope, and reducing its cost, the Board signed off on its construction last fall — but even still, some in the community would rather see it pushed back once more as the county wrestles with a budget dilemma.
Those are all big reasons why Jay Fisette, who served on the Board for 20 years, compared the project to a church in Barcelona, Spain that’s been under construction since 1882. Toby Smith, a local activist who helped lead the Long Bridge Park planning process, added that he “can measure the project’s length by the height of my kids.”
“It’s fair to say I did have doubts over the years, even as the community was largely still behind it,” Fisette told ARLnow. “It wasn’t clear every moment that it was going to happen… but groundbreaking helps it become eminently real.”
Fisette remembers some delays prompted when planners working to design the park, which opened across from the Pentagon in 2011, decided to shift where the aquatics center would be located within Long Bridge. He also puts some of the blame for the project’s long timeline on himself, recalling his insistence that the facility meet the new energy efficiency standards he fought to impose for county buildings.
“It was never expected to happen quickly,” Fisette said. “Good things sometimes take a long time.”
Still, Cristol lamented that it was “bittersweet” that the county would break ground on the project without Carrie Johnson around to see it. As one of the county’s longest tenured planning commissioners, Johnson played a key role in shepherding the entire Long Bridge Park project through the process, but she passed away this May.
“Years down the road, we’ll all be thanking Carrie Johnson for this,” Smith said.
But for all the project’s long history, Cristol points out that many of Arlington’s new arrivals are only now learning about aquatics center. She feels Long Bridge is as much about the county’s future as its past, and she hopes the upcoming construction work “will give people a chance to learn about what will be coming here.”
Work is set to wrap up in 2021, with a 50-meter pool, diving towers, a family pool and a series of additional park improvements on tap for the area by the time it’s completed.
So even if the project required some long nights, a few headaches and one last morning in the rain, Fisette feels it was all worth the effort.
“This area used to be an invisible place,” Fisette said. “It was a wasteland, where you’d only come if your car got towed. This is going to transform it into a vibrant community amenity.”