In an impressive demonstration of citizen concern, Arlington residents turned out in large numbers this week at a meeting of the county's planning agency to voice opinions about the Olmsted Foundation building, the 15-story office tower proposed for the Clarendon Metro site.
Most of the citizens who waited patiently into the night to give their five-minute appraisals live in the residential clusters that surround the site. The majority of them were opposed to the building, fearing it to be the progenitor of a host of high-density office structures lining Wilson Boulevard and spilling over rudely into their neighborhoods.
What these people were asking in the near term seems sensible. They want the Arlington County Board, which has agreed to consider the matter at its meeting next Saturday, to postpone consideration of the building pending completion of an "interim sector plan" for the Clarendon area. Furthermore, by a narrow 6-5 margin, the planning agency voted to recommend deferral to the county legislators.
As representatives of five neighborhood associations correctly pointed out in their joint testimony, "Large scale development should follow, not precede, the planning effort." In pushing for a premature approval of the Olmsted building, including its three-story height bonus gained in return for public improvements whose benefits are at least debatable, the developers are way ahead of the game.
To say that the federal interest in the height of the Olmsted building was not high on the list of Arlington's concerns is to understate the case. None of the speakers or planning board members whose comments I heard even mentioned the protest of the National Capital Planning Commission, which legitimately criticizes the proposed structure for rising far above the green ring of hills that is one of the principal glories of the monumental vista from the Capitol grounds and the Mall.
Still, it seems clearer than ever that this is a case where the interests of Arlington residents and the millions of visitors to the nation's capital coincide. The fact that Arlington County and the District of Columbia are competing for federal office workers and developer dollars should not obscure their visual, demographic and economic interdependence.
Situated high on the Arlington ridge and right in the middle of Metro's Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, Clarendon is the place where high buildings (particularly high buildings with pyramidal roofs such as the Olmsted structure) would impinge most upon the historic vista. Because it is closer to long-established residential communities, Clarendon also is the place where high-density office development would most seriously and negatively affect the quality and style of residential life in Arlington.
The Arlington County planning staff supports the Olmsted building as a "focal point" of high architectural quality for the Clarendon area. Many residents fear that in the long run the emphasis will simply be on the concept of "high"--as in high buildings and high density. If precedent be a guide, these fears are justified.
In Arlington and elsewhere, developers have been known to press for everything they can get, and already commercial and development interests in Arlington have stated that "a 15-story height limitation is not unrealistic" in the Clarendon area. Even the citizens who oppose high-density development in the area seem all too willing to accept a height limit of 12 stories--a limit that is way out of keeping with the character of the area. To retreat to this position is merely to play the developers' game.
Obviously, if Clarendon is not to go the uninspiring way other new office clusters in the metropolitan area (Rosslyn, K Street and Crystal City come easily to mind), some very important things need changing. One is linking the idea of an architectural focal point with the notion of a high building--an arbitrary linkage if there ever was one.
Another is the practice of granting unnecessary and often harmful bonus rights to developers in exchange for public improvements. In Clarendon, for instance, developers of the Olmsted building are seeking added height as compensation for the construction of a narrow public park in the middle of two wide, heavily used streets--as if Wilson Boulevard were Broadway and Clarendon were Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Most important of all, there is a desperate need for an enlightened, long-term vision of what Clarendon can and should become. At the meeting this week, one of the citizens distributed a study of the Clarendon site made two years ago by Anne Munly, now a practicing architect, who used Clarendon as the raw material for her master's thesis at the Princeton University School of Architecture. Munly had the luxury of studying the site without paying much attention to the booming market in office space that is putting so much pressure on the place.
But her farsighted appraisal of the opportunities is worth serious consideration. Munly suggests the need for a proper identification of the area in the contexts of Arlington's history, of Clarendon's residential neighborhoods and in the "linear civic system" of the five Metro stops in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. Her low-rise proposal identifies this important site as a community center that would include five elements: a community theater "to serve as a focus for Arlington's performing arts programs," a museum and archives to record "Arlington's considerable historic heritage," residential apartments, small-scale commercial development including restaurants and a movie theater, and a "significant exterior space."
Perhaps Arlington County does not have the resources to support residential development on this expensive site or to sponsor all of the community amenities Munly suggests. Nonetheless, her ideas are the kind that can stir the imagination and rescue the argument over Clarendon's fate from its dreary routine of offices, offices and more offices.
Her design, furthermore, goes a long way toward proving that a building doesn't have to be high to be good. In her conclusion, Munly states that "this proposed community center is not meant to discourage the potential growth and densification of Clarendon, but to influence the type and method of this growth." That is what planning is all about--or should be.
Adding an unfortunate note of irony to the debate, Guy Martin, a partner in the imaginative young firm Martin & Jones, that designed the Olmsted structure, showed up at the planning board meeting with a revised design that strips the building of its previous architectural distinction.
In its first incarnation, the building was an intelligent entertainment, a multicolored, multifaceted stepped-back structure remindful of free-standing office buildings of the 1920s and 1930s. In its new guise the layering of colors and window types has been replaced by glass towers at each corner--a puzzling introduction of a modern office building style that is totally inappropriate.
There is no longer any good reason to build the Olmsted building as proposed. By rejecting the proposal, Arlington citizens, planners and politicians can give themselves time to respond with creative vigor to the challenging opportunities that the Clarendon site, in truth, represents.