Arlington County officials are backing a plan to significantly increase building heights in Rosslyn, making for a more dramatic skyline but raising concerns about airline safety and the future of the sweeping vistas along the Potomac.
At issue is a proposal to build a 39-story office tower in Rosslyn that would rival the Washington Monument in height and soar above the 300-foot-tall buildings that were equally controversial when they went up nearly 25 years ago.
On one side of the river, a county task force has been working for six months to create a "signature skyline" for Rosslyn. One county planner says that the current silhouette, with its boxy buildings of similar heights, has the visual appeal of "the refrigerator aisle at Best Buy."
"It ought to be something that is in some way exalting," said Arlington County Board Vice Chairman Chris Zimmerman (D).
On the other side are federal planning officials and architects devoted to the vision of Pierre L'Enfant and the preservation of the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument as the area's focal point. Tall buildings in Rosslyn, they say, would further encroach on L'Enfant's historic plan for a city of low structures dominated by tree-lined promenades and the Capitol dome.
Any increase in building height is likely to be vigorously opposed by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission, which together guard the capital's cityscape.
L'Enfant and the founders "would be distressed at the sight of Rosslyn today . . . rising like the Tower of Babel on the far side of the Potomac," said Steven W. Hurtt, a former dean of the University of Maryland's school of architecture.
Returning that part of the capital city to Virginia in 1846 was "clearly a mistake," Hurtt said. "Were it still part of D.C., maybe we wouldn't have this problem."
Along with the aesthetic questions, safety concerns about taller building have been raised by the Federal Aviation Administration, which is examining the building proposal by Westfield Realty Inc. to determine whether the 484-foot glass structure would be a hazard to air traffic.
"It's on the final approach into Reagan National Airport," said Jim Peters, a spokesman for the FAA. "We've never been through this before -- not a 500-foot building at the end of a runway at National."
The county's effort to retool the Rosslyn skyline is part of its campaign to liven up a neighborhood that was built mostly for offices in the 1960s and 1970s and is still hampered by chilly concrete walls and wide, pedestrian-unfriendly streets.
Some new coffee shops and bookstores have arrived, but there is still little in the way of nightlife or shopping for workers or for the new residents who have poured in with an estimated $2 billion of new projects since 1999.
"To me, this is one of the most exciting commercial neighborhoods in Arlington," said County Board Chairman Jay Fisette (D). "It sits at the core of the region directly on two Metro lines and has unmatched views of D.C."
Fisette's vision for Rosslyn includes the possibility of a penthouse-level observation deck for the public atop office towers in the two-block area around the Metro station where the county wants to cluster the tallest buildings.