Planned Rosslyn Tower Might Be Hazard, FAA Says

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 8, 2006

The Federal Aviation Administration has determined that a planned 390-foot-tall office building in Rosslyn could be a hazard to airplanes, delaying Arlington County's hopes for its own glittering "signature skyline" across the Potomac River from Washington.

In a preliminary ruling, the FAA said that the office tower -- which would loom about 31 stories above the Rosslyn Metro station -- would be a "presumed hazard" and could interfere with planes approaching Reagan National Airport, three miles southeast.

The glass-and-steel tower is one of two on the drawing board and includes a top-floor public observation deck where visitors can view the monuments and memorials on the Mall and the area's sweeping vista -- the county's version of the Empire State Building. A group of business owners has already started marketing Rosslyn as "Manhattan on the Potomac."

The FAA's Nov. 24 decision has confounded some officials because the federal agency ruled this year that the structure's twin residential tower next door -- also planned for 390 feet -- will not be a danger to planes.

"On the residential tower, the FAA did a study and determined it not to be a hazard," said Diane Spitaliere, an FAA spokeswoman. "The second tower . . . is still being evaluated. They sent out a 'notice of presumed hazard' because there are some issues with the location of building in relation to the approach to the runway, but we're still studying it."

Kathleen L. Webb, a principal of JBG Cos., a District-based developer building the towers, said that JBG hopes to meet with federal officials in coming weeks to show them that the office building is "only a few feet away" from the approved residential tower.

"We hope that after some discussion with them and the ability to show them Rosslyn and what the actual sites look like, they will agree that two buildings in a row the same height is fine," Webb said.

The proposal has prompted concern among pilots and aviation experts who have long felt that the existing buildings in Rosslyn are too tall. The tallest buildings in Rosslyn top 312 feet.

William C. Lebegern, chief planner for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, testified at a recent county Planning Commission hearing that the proposed tower could pose a risk and urged the county to delay a decision until a final ruling by the FAA.

The Arlington County Board had been set to consider raising building heights within a two-block area around the Rosslyn Metro station at its meeting tomorrow but has put off the decision until early next year.

The move is part of a larger effort to rejuvenate the neighborhood, which features dated, 1970s-era skywalks -- slated to be removed -- and unfriendly concrete buildings. The boxy skyline could use a facelift, some business owners and citizens have argued.

"Assuming the applicant can win FAA approval, I'm willing to consider some additional height in at least this one area of Rosslyn," said County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman (D). "As long as it helps us realize our vision for the center of Rosslyn, which means creating a good environment at the street level with good shopping and walking and, yes, a more attractive appearance of the skyline."

The proposal has raised the eyebrows of some architects and urban planners on the other side of the river who question Arlington's need for a skyline that competes with Washington's monumental vista. In the District, age-old limits on building heights have been kept in place so new buildings won't obscure the view of the U.S. Capitol or the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument.

"It's a concern for anybody who cares about the design of the nation's capital and the Mall, whether this height is going to have an adverse visual impact on this national park," said Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which oversees architecture in the federal city.

Given the controversy, Jim Pebley, an Arlington planning commissioner, said the county needs to proceed with caution.

"It's an important building," Pebley said of the office tower. "We need to resolve how high we can build and still be safe."

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