With Newseum Building, Arlington County Tries Again for an Urban Arts Center

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 25, 2009

Arlington County Manager Ron Carlee knows times are tough. He just got through a bruising budget season in which declining revenue and a general economic slump forced him to recommend cutting more than $20 million in a vast array of services: libraries, music festivals, adult day care, extra police details, nature and art centers and bus routes.

But get him inside the empty shell of what once was the Newseum building in Rossyln -- that dome-shaped, white structure just off Wilson Boulevard that some call ugly and others, more kindly, distinctive -- and his eyes begin to shine. He sees a cafe, people hanging out in comfy chairs, engrossed in their wireless-fed laptops or listening to live music, browsing uniquely made arts and crafts for sale or buying a ticket to any performance in the area; he sees a long, low bar in front of a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the urban scene serving the latest cocktails, with garage bands, intimate and avant-garde theater performances, independent film showings, gallery shows, catered parties on the rooftop terrace, a ballroom, corporate meetings during the day and stand-up comedy or poetry readings at night.

Never mind the $6 million price tag. Carlee sees nothing less than transforming the old 56,000-square-foot Newseum into a cutting-edge arts and culture center of the future.

"I know it seems odd. We're investing at a time when people are cutting back," he said, his voice echoing off the lime-green walls in the shuttered building. "But as we look forward, we have to be strategic. If we can put Rossyln in a better place competitively, when things start moving again, when the economy picks up, we want businesses to make this the first place that they want to invest."

The County Board has scheduled a public hearing on the proposal for July 11.

The center is the latest attempt by the county to transform Rosslyn, a holdover of 1960s urban planning. The area was designed primarily to move cars through it, hence its deserted feeling. People were relegated to "Star Trek" walkways above or below ground. Office buildings were imposing and unfriendly, with few street-level retail shops or places to eat. Rosslyn looks like a neutron bomb has gone off, wiping out all signs of life but leaving the buildings unscathed.

The project and the timing, Carlee said, are the result of serendipity more than anything else.

First came the desire: For decades, Arlington leaders have wanted to find an urban space for an arts center. They looked in Ballston in the 1960s, in Pentagon City in the 1980s and at Courthouse Plaza in the 1990s. Nothing worked. The reason for the search, Carlee said, is that most of the arts space in the county is in school buildings in suburban neighborhoods, which, he said, can't create the same kind of "synergy" that an urban arts space can. At a central, urban space, people can wander retail shops and browse before performances, he said, go out to dinner, or grab a coffee or drink afterward.

"You just don't get the same spinoff effects in suburban areas," he said. "There aren't restaurants or urban amenities, very little transit and no Metro. You want something to bring people out at night and on weekends."

Then came the space: The building, across the street from the Spectrum Theatre, has been empty since 2002, when the heavily endowed Newseum outgrew it and built its own home on Constitution Avenue in downtown Washington. For years, the county has worked with an ever-changing cast of landlords as the building was sold and resold and as they tried to find private arts tenants. But the rent was always more than most museums and nonprofit arts groups could afford, Carlee said. The cost of running and maintaining the building is about a half-million dollars a year, he said.

Finally, the deal: County leaders formed a partnership with the Rosslyn Business Improvement District, which, Carlee said, has always wanted more "there there" in Rossyln. The Rosslyn business alliance ponied up $1 million up front and has agreed to an annual $300,000 investment to keep the center running. And the building's owner, Monday Properties, with few prospects for takers for the space, agreed to a 15-year rent-free lease in exchange for additional building density at another Rossyln site. Carlee said the county can find the $6 million it needs to refurbish the center by reallocating resources.

"This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something really important for the arts and really important for Rosslyn," Carlee said. The center would be open seven days a week, 12 hours a day, hosting more than 100 events a month, and is expected to have an estimated $10 million in annual economic impact from an estimated 250,000 visitors, he said. The county plans to run the center for three years, then turn management over to a private nonprofit group it would create.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company