The Arlington County Board is considering a plan for a $60 million redevelopment of the aging Washington-Lee Shopping Center into an office-hotel complex that some say would breach the county's policy of confining large-scale projects to the high-rise Metro corridors.
The plan by the Fairfax County-based Sequoia Building Corp. already has drawn fierce opposition from residents of the nearby single-family neighborhood and from businessmen now located in the center across from Fort Myer at Rte. 50 and Washington Boulevard.
Almost all the nearby working-class neighborhood, county officials and the developer agree that the 44-year-old center is an eyesore sitting on potentially lucrative land near the Pentagon and Rosslyn. More recently neighbors have been riled by the return of soft porn movies to the Byrd Theater, the center's most prominent landmark.
Sequoia's ambitious plan for two tapered office buildings of three to eight stories, a 10-story hotel, 16 town houses and 35,600 square feet in retail space is a modified version of an earlier plan for the hotel and three taller office buildings, but it still fails to appease longtime residents who object to high-rise encroachment.
"It's inconsistent with the neighborhood . . . and it's also inconsistent with the policy of concentrating high densities in the Metro corridor," said Percy Scott, president of the Central Arlington Civic Association that voted overwhelmingly against the project last week.
Business owners in the shopping center are developing a plan to buy the property and renovate it with county financial aid. "The shopping center can't stay here as it is because it's too crummy," said Harry D. Gray, owner of Joey's restaurant and founder of the Save our Shopping Center (SOS) movement of local business owners. "Something's got to be done with the outside. Either they (Sequoia) do it or we do it."
Gray said SOS wants to buy the center and convert it to "something that would put service businesses here for the community. High-rises wouldn't be any service to the community."
Sequoia considered building a new retail center there, but believed such a plan would not be viable, given the poor history of the center as a commercial area and the convenience of neighborhood-oriented stores on nearby Columbia Pike, said Ray F. Smith, Sequoia's president.
Although the project's densities and heights have been reduced from the original proposal submitted in July, all five County Board members have openly questioned the wisdom of allowing such development near a residential area. But they say they are withholding judgment until the details of the latest proposal are officially presented Oct. 13.
"I have some real concerns about it . . . about the traffic and density. Is it compatible with the neighborhood? Probably not," said Michael E. Brunner, the board's lone Republican. Adds Democratic Board Chairman Ellen M. Bozman, "I think we have to look at this particular site. Is this the direction we want to be moving in? That needs to be addressed."
Under the latest revisions presented to the county's planning staff, the proposed phased-development project would consist of 500,000 square feet of office space in two "terraced" buildings that range from three to eight stories, considered "mid-rises" in contrast to the towering buildings of up to 30 stories in the Metro stop corridors. The old plan called for nearly double the space in three office buildings.
The plan still contains a 10-story 250-unit hotel and 35,600 square feet of retail space to service the hotel and offices, but adds 16 town houses that would serve as a buffer to the residential neighborhood. There also would still be a manmade lake to catch storm water runoff and a new access road from Rte. 50.
The new proposal, county planner Robert Brosnan said, is a "significant reduction" in density and appears to be a "reasonable compromise for redevelopment of the area." County officials also point out that such mixed-use projects have been permitted elsewhere outside of the county's Rosslyn-Ballston and Rte. 1 Metro corridors.
"We have tried to be as responsive and sensitive to the community's concerns as we can be," said Smith. "This is no where near the density of (developments around) Metro stops. It's less than one-third of what can be developed in the Metro corridors."
Under the property's current land use and zoning designations, Sequoia has the right to build a complex that could have more, but shorter buildings spread out over a seven-acre site. The revised plan calls for fewer but taller buildings dispersed over a 10-acre site. The arrangement, Smith said, should be more compatible with the neighborhood.
The firm's existing development rights will have to be weighed carefully when the board deliberates on the revised plans, board member Mary Margaret Whipple said.
David L. Shurtz, SOS's attorney and the owner of a legal clinic in the center, says the new plan is not significantly different from the first plan Sequoia proposed. "It's probably a very nice project for Rosslyn or Crystal City, but it's totally inappropriate in the back yard of a residential community."
Citing the "blue-collar" nature of the long-established neighborhood and the many transients assigned to Fort Myer, Shurtz added, "They're not interested in buying $50 silk shirts and leather luggage for trips to Hawaii. That's the kind of customer they're going to be catering to in the new retail space, a very high-dollar market you find in downtown Washington."