Virtually no one, it seems, likes the newly approved office building that will tower 14 stories above the Arlington Country Courthouse -- including some County Board members who approved it.
John W. Purdy, the board member who ridiculed federal planners' arguments that the building's height will mar the view of visitors to the Mall, cast the deciding vote to approve the building. But Purdy conceded he was "not entirely pleased" with its box-like design. Bord member Ellen M. Bozman, who voted against the building, called it "massive" and "dead concrete."
Even the developer, former Republican state delegate Herbert N. Morgan, admitted, "Although the local architects may not be Frank Lloyd Wright . . . economics often dictate" what architects design and developers build.
Economy seems to be of paramount importance to this County Board, particularly to Republican-backed Chairman Walter L. Frankland Jr., who said he supported the development because it will mean additional tax revenues. s
The building, designed by county Planning Commission Chairman Richard T. Malesardi and proposed by Morgan, Franklan's childhood friend and trusted adviser, will be opposite the county courthouse and flanked by a one-acre concrete plaza.
Frankland weakly defends the building by saying that "if there weren't for concrete there wouldn't be any buildings."
The trouble with these arguments is that most Arlington officials apparently believe profitable development and handsome buildings are mutually exclusive, and that the county is so unattractive to developers that it must grab whatever is proposd, no matter how ugly.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Arlington's 10 Metro stations, its easy accessibility to downtown Washington, Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and National Airport give the county advantages other jurisdictions simply don't have.
"These developers could make a rich reward and still design good buildings," insists David Childs, chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission, the federal planning agency for the Washington area. "Most architects would be delighted to get a commission there. The problem is that there's no design competition because the market for office space is so strong. People can cut cornersand the buildings still rent well. There's just no incentive to change that."
"Arlington has got a damned inferiority complex," observed Louise Chesnut, a long-time civic activist and a critic of many land-use policies in Arlington. "It reminds me of the South, which lived for years under the cloude of the Civil War and then was rediscoverd as the Sunbelt. We haven't realized that we're sitting on a gold mine."
"We're in a fantastic position to pick and choose," agreed County Board member Dorothy T. Grotos, who voted against the high-rise. "Arlington is not a depressed area; we're one of the hottest pieces of real estate in the country. We're going to wake up one day and look at all these high-rises and say, 'Waht happened?'"
That is apparently what has occurred in Rosslyn, the financially successful -- and aesthetically disastrous -- high-rise office development across the Key Bridge from Georgetown. Arlington officials plan to widen sidewalks, plant trees and narrow the streets -- some of which are eight lanes wide -- in hopes of improving the area.
"The county cut its own throat by being so cheap and trying to get developers to pay for everything," Chesnut said. Referring to Arlington's long-established policy of approving tall, bulky buildings in return for developers agreeing to pay for streets, sidewalks and pedestrian bridges high atop buildings that are routinely shunned by pedestrians.
"Those bridges were absolutely crippling," Childs said. "They sucked the life out of the streets and Rosslyn became a cavernous no-man's land."
Childs and others point out that Rosslyn was developed in the mid-1960s, before Metro and before Arlington was in the enviable position of being able to dictate the kind of development it wanted.
"Arlington has got to put some teeth into its zoning and comprehensive planning," said Childs, who notes that Arlington could require landscaping and other elements of good design as part of its zoning laws.
The landscaped pedestrian plaza near the Ballston Metro station, designed by the county staff, is a small step in the right direction.
Because the county owns about eight acres of valuable land surrounding its courthouse, County Board member Bozman suggests that Arlington hold a design competition and award commissions for new buildings there.
Childs seconds the idea. "That way Arlington has a chance to set an example of what it wants" in the way of future development along the shabby Wilson Boulevard corridor.
"There's more money to be made in that corridor than in any part of the U.S.," Preston Caruthrs, a prominent Northern Virginia developer, said last year shortly after the subway stations opened.
Caruthers should know. He began assembling sizable parcels of land around the stations a decade ago.
Now it's time for Arlington officials to realize they don't have to pass out blank checks to developers.