On a crisp November day, a flock of third graders dash down a hill toward Arlington’s Reevesland Learning Garden, eager to get their tiny hands dirty to their hearts’ delight.
“It’s cool because you see the life cycle of a plant and you’re helping others,” Natalie Ellis, 8, said.
Keith Knott’s class from Ashlawn Elementary School visit the garden located on the 2.4-acre Reevesland property about once a month. Students check on the progress of various greens that they plant, harvest, and ultimately donate to the Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC), a year-round food pantry for the needy.
“They are very excited,” Knott said as his students stirred effervescently behind him. “They get to see the benefits of their planting for a good cause.”
The Lawns 2 Lettuce 4 Lunch program stemmed from neighborhood advocate Joan Horwitt, a retired high school Spanish teacher who has cultivated a passion for urban agriculture.
Horwitt has spent the last year or so persuading Arlington County, with the support of a steering committee, to restore the 2,177-square-foot Reevesland farmhouse and create a “learning center” devoted to urban agriculture.
It’s a perfect re-use, Horwitt said, for the property that was the site of the Arlington County’s last dairy farm until 1995.
“We are hoping to reestablish the farmhouse as a symbol of urban agriculture in Arlington,” Horwitt said.
Arlington County acquired the farmhouse and the land it sits on in 2001 for $1.8 million as an addition to neighboring Bluemont Park at 400 N. Manchester St. While the property’s past has been thoroughly documented in an extensive historical survey, its future remains unclear.
Though Horwitt and supporters have their own visions for the home – which is currently boarded up and uninhabitable – the county is weighing its options for the property.
In September, the county put out a request for proposals to see whether developers had any interest in the property, but no one took the bait. Given the property’s status as a county historic district, alterations would fairly be limited to the interior of the space. By early next year, the parks department and county staff hope to present the county with a plan for what is next.
“If there was an easy answer, we would have come up with something back when we got it,” said Lisa Grandle, park development division chief for the Arlington County Parks and Recreation Department, which maintains the property.
“It’s a huge piece of Arlington’s history and it tells a story of what used to be here,” Grandle continued. “It’s an important property, but what to do with it is still a question.”
Planting a Seed
When the students visited the Reevesland grounds recently, they worked in the plots like buzzing bees in the shadow of the historic home.
Students heard an explanation from Horwitt on what they would be harvesting, which was arugula and other greens. They scrambled to be the ones to pick the lettuce from one of the eight plant beds. The learning garden had opened in April 2011 and students have even grown lemongrass.
Horwitt hopes the home will be used as a place to hold lectures and gardening demonstrations.
“People get so excited about the project,” Horwitt said.
She spearheaded the Reevesland Learning Center Steering Committee in the fall of 2010 and gathered 600 signatures from neighbors in support of the learning center earlier this year. Many neighbors have even offered to help defer the labor costs by helping to renovate the house themselves, Horwitt said.
“The county at this point has responded by saying this would be too expensive,” Horwitt said. “Even though there are many demands on the county, this isn’t a big-budget item.”
A New Crop
Finding out what to do next with the home, county officials say, is not that easy.
The property and grounds were named a historic district in 2004, so any changes to the home’s façade would have to be reviewed and ultimately approved by the county’s Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board. The board ensures that exterior renovations meet “current needs yet are still sensitive to the historic character of the neighborhood,” according to the organization’s website.
- RELATED: More on the History of Reevesland Farm
The county has looked for ideas on what to do inside the home. The county commissioned a “potential use” survey to explore options for the property twice, once in 2004 and then updated in 2011.
Three options were explored: developing the home as a single-family residence, a public meeting space or a food service establishment.
Renovation costs to make the home compliant with current building regulations would run anywhere from $944,000 to more than $1.3 million, said Grandle, of the parks department.
“We are trying to find a way to preserve the house and the property without a significant cost to the county,” Grandle said.
While the hill in front of the home is a prime sledding spot for area children in the winter, the home itself is off limits to the public because the home doesn’t have modern electrical wiring and other features to keep it current with Arlington building codes, Grandle said.
In September, the county put out a request for proposals to the public, which means they were looking to see if a developer had any interest in finding a use for the site.
“We had hoped to find someone who is interested and has the financial wherewithal for adaptive reuse,” Grandle said. “But no one came forward who responded to the RFP who was offering the whole package.”
At a November county board meeting, county officials touched on Reevesland after the county heard that no one had responded to the RFP. Board chair Mary Hynes echoed concerns over costs.
“And while in the scope of life it may seem like a small amount of money, nonetheless we are in a time where we have to make choices about what we do and how we do it and this does present us with some interesting challenges,” Hynes said during the meeting.
County Board Member Walter Tejada echoed the concerns over costs, but said in an interview the “citizen enthusiasm is admirable.” He added there could be some sort of public-private partnership formed to help make the learning center a reality.
“It’s commendable, and let's see what we can do to help them,” Tejada said.
However, without a plan in the form of an RFP with the money to back it up, the parks department is at a loss to what’s next. Horwitt, meanwhile, will keep pushing for a learning center.
“We would like to sit down with the county and work with them seriously,” Horwitt said.