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Jean R. Packard Center at Occoquan Regional Park in Lorton (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Nearly 22 years after Lorton Prison closed in 2000, Fairfax County planners and developers are in the thick of reimagining what the sleepy spot along I-95 will look like in 2040.

Staff are currently evaluating feedback from a second round of community engagement in March on what the community envisions for Lorton. The meetings followed an initial round of feedback in 2019.

Barbara Byron, director of the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Development, says conceptual frameworks are being developed along Lorton Road between Silverbrook Road and Richmond Highway.

“The maps will help visualize potential improvements to the public realm, such transportation and parks improvements to better serve the area, and potential alternatives to the planned mix of land uses and development within the area — primarily at the three commercial centers of Gunston Plaza, Lorton Marketplace and the Lorton Station Town Center,” Byron said.

Mt. Vernon District Supervisor Dan Stork notes that significant transformation is already underway.

“In 2000 as the Lorton Prison was closing, the community came together to plan for the future of Lorton,” he told FFXnow. “Today, I am particularly proud of the role we have all had in bringing much of that vision to fruition, with three new schools, several new residential developments, and many new businesses and commercial centers.”

Ultimately, the county hopes Lorton will become a destination for residents and regional visitors that is anchored by the Workhouse Arts Center, the new Lorton Community Center and library, the Liberty mixed-use community, parks, and the creation of a new downtown east of I-95 along Lorton Road.

But the challenges of transforming a largely suburban area with commercial centers and large swaths of parking lots remain.

“Development patterns in the Lorton area are heavily suburban in character with commercial centers and large parking lots,” Byron said. “However, there is an opportunity to identify and attract unique, niche commercial uses that could turn it into a go-to destination in Northern Virginia.”

Stork says the recent reinvigoration of feedback on the future of Lorton will help guide the process of bringing the community’s “vision for the next 20 years to life.”

For the coming decades, property owners and private investors’ willingness to share that vision will be a key to realizing it.

In 2021, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the consideration of a comprehensive plan amendment to recommend a town center concept near the Virginia Railway Express station, along with gateway locations and residential areas at a mix of densities. A community task force has collaborated with the county to begin work on the study, which will wrap up in the winter.

Next steps include drafting a comprehensive plan amendment on the topic.

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A digital rendering shows the proposed collections facility (via Fairfax County)

A heating plant abandoned when the Lorton prison closed in 2001 could eventually host Fairfax County’s vast collection of artifacts and museum objects.

Located in the Workhouse Arts Center area, the building at 8941 Workhouse Road could be transformed with a second-level addition and upgrades to meet curation standards, allowing the county to hold over 3 million artifacts in a central location.

The project will go before the county’s Planning Commission at a 7:30 p.m. meeting today (Wednesday) as part of a public facilities review process. At this time, the locations housing archaeological and museum collections are at capacity, according to the county.

Currently, the artifacts and museum objects are on display at historic sites in the county and exhibits at the James Lee Community Center in West Falls Church, the Fairfax County Government Center, and other locations.

Some objects are also housed at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park facilities near Manassas, or on temporary display for events and festivals, such as Celebrate Fairfax.

The area where the former heating plant now sits was once used as a cattle shed and hay barn for inmates at the Occoquan Workhouse, which opened in 1910 with a farm operated by prisoners serving short sentences for non-violent offenses.

“Layers of fencing and other security features (most of which have recently been removed) came only later as higher security was required in the last quarter of the twentieth century,” a report says on the workhouse, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

A Fairfax County archaeological report from Sept. 21, 2020, by senior archaeologist Aimee Wells says the workhouse’s shift to more of a medium-security prison changed the property’s use.

“The building that currently stands on the property was built in the mid-1990s as a heating plant on a concrete slab and was in use for less than a decade,” the report said.

The heating plant was decommissioned around 1998 as part of a gradual shutdown of the prison, according to the report.

The 31-foot-tall structure includes a 13,355-square-foot building. The plan currently being considered by the county calls for adding a 1,405-square-foot bump-out addition that’s nearly 21 feet tall.

“The building would include labs, storage, research rooms, offices, collections isolation rooms and the loading dock area, and a records room would be located in the bump-out addition,” a March 2022 staff report said about the project. “Site improvements include dumpster pad with screen, parking area, sidewalk/ADA accessible path, chain link fence along the site perimeter, and an access road connecting to the Workhouse Campus.”

Permits are expected to be sought in coming months through spring 2023, and construction would start, but it would rely on the next public bond cycle to finance it.

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