Smart growth doesn’t look so smart to some Arlington residents


Mitchell Schear of Vornado poses for a portrait on the roof top of one of his company's buildings in Crystal City. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
September 20, 2013

The Arlington County Board plans to vote Saturday on a major development that would bring five multistory buildings with 1.8 million square feet of commercial space and 50,000 square feet for retail to one of the largest undeveloped parcels near downtown Washington.

The proposed development, named PenPlace, would replace a now-vacant lot with offices rising as high as 22 stories, a 300-room hotel and a large interior courtyard that will function as a public park. The nine-acre parcel, located on Army-Navy Drive just south of Interstate 395, is surrounded by multiple bus routes, within easy walking distance of two Metrorail stops and on the route of a proposed streetcar. Given its proximity to the Pentagon, the developer, Vornado/Charles E. Smith, hopes to lease one of the buildings as a secure government facility.

Arlington officials say that this “in-fill” development is exactly where high-density, transit-oriented construction should take place. About 59 percent of people who work in the Crystal City-
Pentagon City area already take transit, walk, carpool or bike to work, the county says, and 20.5 percent of the residents — twice the county average — don’t have a car.

“What we want to do is focus our growth around transit,” said Robert Brosnan, director of the county’s planning and development department. “What we’ve proved in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor is you can accommodate density and growth without increasing traffic. . . . We’ve held the line on where development occurs.”

Vornado is required to complete 12th Street across the property so that it connects Pentagon City and Crystal City. The company also will provide space for a streetcar maintenance facility, fulfilling another county priority.

The Arlington County Board gave unanimous approval to PenPlace, a development that would include buildings as high as 22 stories, a 300-room hotel and a public park.

But some residents are opposed to the project, saying it lacks housing and civic necessities, such as a medical clinic, a day-care facility or a police substation. Residents fear the project will be a dead zone after dark and will generate too much traffic in an area that is perpetually clogged. The county estimates it will bring an additional 6,800 car trips per day.

“It’s absolutely huge,” said Arthur Fox II, an officer of the Arlington Ridge Civic Association. The group’s Web site demands: “Build us a community, not a compound.”

Fox said, “It’s comparable to buildings in Rosslyn and twice the height of any building currently in Pentagon City.”

The Planning Commission voted this week to advise the County Board to require that one of PenPlace’s buildings be made residential. But the county staff did not adopt that advice in its own report to the board.

The residents’ concerns are similar to those raised in several other development fights in Arlington in recent years, including the ongoing fight over the Columbia Pike streetcar and the plan for a year-round homeless shelter in a county building that is in a residential part of the Courthouse neighborhood.

Residents complain that the county is bending too far to the demands of a major developer.

Vornado also owns the Metropolitan Park residential complex, which the County Board approved in July. That project, now under construction and adjacent to PenPlace, will add 699 apartments and a grocery store to an area that has about 5,000 existing or planned multi-family units. Vornado also is a major landowner in Crystal City, which County Board members and staffers routinely describe as the economic engine of the county.

“The problem with the county is they’re not willing to walk away from Vornado,” said Molly Watson, vice president of the Arlington Ridge Civic Association. She said the county is attempting to use the length of the process — the project has been before the county for three years — to argue that community voices were heard. But Watson said that “Vornado is the only voice in the room.”

Since the 1970s, Arlington County has had a social contract with its residents: focus growth along major streets, encourage the use of public transit and protect the long-standing single-family neighborhoods that make up the bulk of Arlington’s 26 square miles. Commercial growth is supposed to keep property tax increases reasonable, at least for those who already own property.

Mitch Bonanno, Vornado’s senior vice president and director of development, said in a prepared statement that PenPlace “will complement the surrounding existing and planned residential and retail, including our new apartments and Whole Foods Market across the street, to create an active and vibrant future 12th Street corridor.”

Bonanno said the new street will “truly knit together the Pentagon City and Crystal City neighborhoods.” He also pointed to the support of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which said the site is “an appropriate location for high-density development” and the plan “is far more sustainable than building the same development in an isolated office park 20 miles away with no transit.”

The density proposed for the development exceeds the amounts allowed under the site’s zoning. But Arlington allows developers to increase the square footage of projects if they transfer development rights from other land they own to the county.

In this case, Vornado has agreed to cede a teardrop-shaped piece of land and the right-of-way along South Eads Street and ­Army-Navy Drive for a streetcar maintenance facility. But the biggest transfer of development rights, from Long Bridge Park, will cost Vornado $15 million, to be paid within a year. The county manager, in her recommendation to the County Board, said the money will be used to help pay for a planned aquatics and recreation center, which voters approved in a bond election last fall.

John Quinn, a 52-year resident of the area who participated in establishing the first plan for the Pentagon City-Crystal City area years ago, does not intend to let county officials forget a bedrock principle.

“It is the burden of developers to demonstrate that this change in land use is in the public interest,” he said.

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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