By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
For years, a scruffy 28-acre plot just south of the 14th Street bridge in Arlington County has been coveted by officials as the site for a swanky athletic complex, complete with a glass-walled aquatic center, emerald playing fields and shaded nature trails, to cap one of Northern Virginia's last large swaths of open space.
Last night, after years of on-again off-again negotiations, the Arlington County Board approved the final major land-use deal needed to set its plans for the modern recreation facility in motion. Planners say the sports complex, which could cost up to $100 million, would offer dazzling views across the Potomac River into Washington and serve as a spruced-up gateway to the southern part of the county.
Voting 4 to 1, the board completed a complicated land swap with a private developer for a sliver needed to complete the project. Monument Realty owned seven acres on the northern end of the tract that the county wants for the complex. So the county voted to swap 5.5 acres at the southern end for Monument's piece.
Monument will use its new parcel to build a mixed-use development that includes about 350 apartments, office space and room for street-level retail on the northern edge of Crystal City.
The seven acres that Monument gave to the county are south of Interstate 395, near Old Jefferson Davis Highway, and overlook the Potomac. The property is known as the Twin Bridges site because the Twin Bridges Marriott was there. The 5.5 acres that Monument acquired abut the Twin Bridges property to the south.
"The big picture was served well here," said Vice Chairman Barbara A. Favola (D), adding that the Monument development has some flaws. This is "an enormous deal" for us.''
Although there has been little opposition to the project over the years, there is still concern from some civic activists about the delay in the project and how the county will pay for the entire complex.
In 2004, the county began plans for the reclaimed industrial land, and voters approved a $50 million bond for the first phase of construction. Three ballfields and some of the trails and surface parking for visitors will cost about $33 million.
The first phases of the aquatic center could cost up to $50 million, depending on amenities, potentially creating a gap of up to $35 million between dedicated funds and the actual cost. County officials said in interviews that they are unsure how they will fund the swimming facility but have suggested that they could sell naming rights or negotiate partnerships with private industry to help subsidize the cost.
"It's been very frustrating, dealing with the county on this," said Suzanne Bolton, president of Friends of Arlington Parks, a group pushing for the aquatic center. "It's been like a hedge fund. They've been hedging, and they didn't fund it."
County officials said they will work hard to find the funds for the aquatic center. They said the county was dealt a blow nearly two years ago when the original deal with Monument fell through.
In the initial deal, the county and Monument would swap the parcels, and the county would receive $25 million because the company wanted to build condominiums on the parcel it was getting. That money was to help fund the 200,000-square-foot aquatic center.
But Monument backed out of the deal in 2006 because of the downturn in the condominium market. Then, last year, Monument and the county struck a deal for the land swap.
Under the proposal, Monument would contribute nearly $3 million to the county, most of which would be used for affordable housing. But it now will be difficult to pay for the aquatic center.
Before dealing with the funding, board members heard the recommendations of the county Planning Commission on the land swap. The panel voted, 8 to 3, this month that the board reject Monument's plans. Commission members cited several design flaws, including concern that the development would be too dense for the size of the plot.
"There are a lot of problems with this project as it stands," said commission member Jim Pebley, who also expressed concern about the development's proximity to Reagan National Airport.