A Community Center for Fairfax?

A Community Center for Fairfax?

A draft plan for a community center on Old Lee Highway is under way.

To dance, it helps to have a nice, springy, wooden floor. Although the large room at the John C. Wood Center is good for big groups, its concrete floor is hard on joints, knees and ankles.

If Fairfax had a room that not only had a suspended wooden floor but could accommodate 75 or more people, that would delight in particular the Fairfax chapter of the Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann (CCE), which has its monthly Irish country dances at John C. Wood.

But where could such a room be found? CCE members hope it would be in the community center that the city is considering building after years of discussing the issue.

"I think a community center is a great idea," said Bob Hickey of CCE, whose monthly dances draw 70 people from Fairfax and the surrounding area.

The CCE is one of many groups using the John C. Wood Center on 3730 Old Lee Highway on a regular basis. But with the eventual demolition of the current building to make way for the new police station, city officials, staff and citizens are considering constructing a community center to serve as a meeting place for Fairfax.

If a community center were constructed, it would not only benefit current groups using John C. Wood, such as CCE and the homeowners associations and the sewing circles, it would also benefit the city as an alternative location for city-sponsored events.

THE COMMUNITY CENTER is "one place where everyone comes together from all walks of life," said Fairfax City Council member Jeff Greenfield. "It's one more feather in the city's cap on why we're such a great place to live. A true community center has been missing for a long time."

The idea of a community center has been thought about for some time, but with the construction of the police station coming up in several months, the issue has come to the forefront.

The city has considered building a community center for as long as 25 years, according to Brian Knapp, chair of the city's Parks and Recreation Advisory Board (PRAB). In 1996, the city authorized a needs assessment for a community center. The assessment concluded that the center would have three main components: a regulation gymnasium, outdoor athletic fields, and multipurpose space.

Despite the needs assessment, the city shelved the community center idea for a later date.

"We had been using John C. Wood as the de facto community center," said Greenfield, who served on PRAB in the early 1990s.

When the Council decided to build the new police station at its current location at John C. Wood instead of at City Hall in July 2003, the question arose as to where to put groups that would be displaced because of construction. Although the city's Senior Center and Teen Center were meeting at the Green Acres building, the Green Acres campus would be limited in serving as a community center because of parking problems and accessibility to public transportation.

Furthermore, several advocates of constructing the police station at City Hall had hoped John C. Wood could be used as the city's community center, because of its current use and its ideal location in the center of the city.

AFTER MAKING the decision to build a new police center, the Council directed city staff to explore the possibility of having a 10,000-square-foot community center on the John C. Wood campus. In September 2003, Fairfax mayor Rob Lederer approached PRAB to work with staff to update the 1996 needs assessment.

"We said, yeah, we'd love to help out," Knapp said.

PRAB, along with the Commission on the Arts, and Parks and Recreation director Mike Cadwallader, began meeting in November to revise the 1996 assessment. The group took field trips to the Falls Church and Vienna community centers to assess the pros and cons of those centers. They also talked to the more than 39 groups and classes that meet at John C. Wood to determine their current and future needs.

"We've got to make this happen if we get all the groups to come together," Knapp said.

The fruits of that research were compiled into a report that the three parties presented to the City Council at a Feb. 10 work session. That report, a revision of the 1996 needs assessment, called for a 14,000-square-foot building that would be a mix of multipurpose rooms; rooms for specialized activities, such as arts and crafts; and storage. Needs for activities requiring large amounts of space, like swimming or basketball, could be met at nearby public centers like Oak Marr on Jermantown Road or George Mason University.

The group also determined that the John C. Wood location, which is adjacent to Van Dyck Park, is the best location for a community center because of its central location and its proximity to the police station and a major city park.

"Everyone to a ‘T’ affirmed the need for a community center somewhere in the Van Dyck complex," Knapp said. "We've always liked Van Dyck because it's central to the city and it's on a CUE bus line. Plus, you get a synergy there with the police station and the park."

To approach citizens on the idea for a community center, the Council decided that it needed a plan to present. Last week, it approved funding to design a draft plan for a 14,000-square-foot community center somewhere on the John C. Wood and Van Dyck Park complex.

Funding would come from the long-term package that the city currently reserves for open space, and costs would be spread over a ten-year period, said Fairfax mayor Rob Lederer. If $200 per square foot is the estimate for the development of a community center, the cost estimate could be around $2.8 million.

Council members argued that the timing of this project would be key, as the city is undergoing several major projects as well as the school bond referendum in November for the renovation of Fairfax High School and Lanier Middle School.

"To me, the timing is right. We have the potential to save some money with engineering and construction costs," Greenfield said.

YET THE CHALLENGES are many. The upcoming elections, the state budget standstill, proposed downtown renovations, and the school bond could hamper bringing a community center to fruition.

For the John C. Wood site, questions arose on the preservation of ball space and parking.

Once construction does start on the police station and the City Hall expansion, the city will have to determine where to place temporarily the community groups using John C. Wood.

"You don't want to overlook the circuits," Knapp said.

Yet when the most recent study was completed, all parties agreed that an improved facility that could serve as a community center was sorely needed in the city. The surrounding homeowners associations overwhelmingly supported the idea, and with the upcoming construction for the police station, the timing could be now or never, at least for the next several years, said Councilmember Patrice Winter.

"We've done our due diligence," Winter said. She envisioned the community center as a two-story building, with one floor serving as a large, yet divisible, multipurpose room. "By having a community center, we can help control our destiny as a city," she said.