Developers of a new community in Northern Virginia took on the unique task of building a mixed-use community within the walls of a former prison.

A public–private partnership between Fairfax County, Va.; Madison, Wis.–based developer Alexander Co.; and McLean, Va.–based Elm Street Development transformed the historic Lorton Reformatory into the Liberty Lorton master-planned village of apartments, townhouses, single-family homes, amenities, retail, and commercial space, which opened last May.

Inspired by Progressive-era ideals of social reform, President Theodore Roosevelt opened the original complex in 1910 to offer inmates from nearby Washington, D.C., an idyllic setting for work training and rehabilitation before their release back into society. Light-filled dormitories were built as an alternative to cell blocks, and open, airy spaces replaced traditional prison enclosures. In the 1930s, a traditional prison with walls and guard towers was added to house maximum-security offenders.

By the late 1980s and ‘90s, the condition of the correctional complex had deteriorated significantly.

“At that point, the prison was no longer way out in the countryside surrounded by farm fields—it was right in the heart of Fairfax County, and it was no longer embodying the social reform ideal that it was created under,” says Jack Perkins, vice president at Elm Street Development.

The reformatory, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was sold to Fairfax County in 2001. Developers teamed up with local citizens groups on an adaptive-reuse master plan that would respect the property’s history and transform the dormitories into 165 loft-style apartment units, 44 of which are designated affordable housing.

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Originally published by Kathleen Brown in Multifamily Executive.