"Why is this covered up?" Walter Tejada said as he removed a piece of cardboard that had been covering a foosball table. "This is serious stuff!"
Tejada, the chairman of the Arlington County Board, was noticeably excited Monday during a media tour of the soon-to-be-complete Arlington Mill Community Center — and not just in the game room on the third floor.
The $36 million facility, expected to finish under budget, has been a long time coming.
The sleek, modern five-floor building practically has windows for walls compared to the old Safeway that once sat on the property, giving its interior a bright, open feel. The 64,000-square-foot facility includes a gym — lined with two smaller basketball courts for children or one large one for adults, plus Pickleball — and a fitness center. It contains a number of classrooms and multi-purpose rooms, along with an outdoor plaza and, soon, a new locally owned Pan-American Bakery.
And the views from the top floor give you the feeling that Columbia Pike can become all that its advocates say it will be.
"This is a big deal," Tejada told reporters. "This is the anchor in a community that is very diverse, where people speak a number of languages."
Of the 37,000 residents along Columbia Pike, two-thirds are non-white. Nearly 1 in 3 speak a language other than English, and 40 percent are foreign-born, according to data from Arlington County. "Live, Work and Play" in Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, English and Korean can be found on various walls in the new center.
The county has owned the land, at the intersection of Dinwiddie Street and Columbia Pike, since 1996. The old Safeway there was used as a community center while redevelopment discussions crept along. But the initial developer attached to the project pulled out when the financial crisis hit. And at one point, the county considered boarding up the old building.
Church basements suddenly filled up. A community center at nearby Harvey Hall was bursting at the seems. A need was unfilled.
"It was a major discussion," Tejada said. "This was a very difficult conversation to have with the community — why would some projects move forward and not this one?"
County leaders had to get creative. They found a partner in the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, which is developing a 122-unit affordable housing complex adjacent to the community center. The lottery to determine who gets top billing on the Arlington Mill Residences waiting list begins Tuesday.
"Just the thought, in 2009, that the building had to be boarded up until the economy recovered didn't sit well with some of us," Tejada said. "You had a community devoid of their community center. … This will provide so much relief."
Elected officials gave the go-ahead to the project in December of that year, thanks in part to pressure from residents in Columbia Heights West and the surrounding neighborhoods. Young people wanted it. Families wanted it. Seniors wanted it. Non-native English speakers wanted it.
The center will host a number of programs, including education, health, nutrition and parent services for low-income children and their families. It will offer English classes, bilingual programs, job skills training and job placement assistance, along with citizenship classes.
Some programs will begin as early as Sept. 3, though a ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled for 5 p.m. Sept. 21. An open house is planned for early December.
"We are very excited about this," said Takis Karantonis, executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization. "It's the first full-size community center on a major arterial corridor."
The community center is designed so that it can be converted into an emergency shelter, said George May, the county's bureau chief for facilities design and construction.
The bulk of the community center project was funded through bonds approved by voters. Despite that, the project has had its fair share of critics, particularly during county budget talks. Critics often lump it in with other big-ticket items under the umbrella of "vanity projects."
"I would invite them to come and utilize the center, and meet the diverse residents of Arlington who are glad to have an anchor to their community. And they can chat them up," Tejada said.
When fully operational, the Arlington Mill Community Center will be open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays and 1 to 9 p.m. Sundays.
Residents who use the center will be able to park free for up to four hours; the parking fee schedule beyond that wasn't immediately available Monday.
A Capital Bikeshare station is planned for the property.