In the late 1950's, the Arlington County Board looked at Rosslyn much like a stern father might see an elder daughter who had run away to live with the gypsies.
"They said it was a shame and a disgrace," said Richard E. Arms, the county's former planning director who supervised Rosslyn's redevelopment. "But it was obvious to everyone that the area had an enormous potential as an employment and population center."
After Arlington voters turned down a referendum that would have given the county urban renewal authority. Arms and his associates turned to private developers and a new "site plan" zoning process to give Rosslyn its overhaul.
The project was hailed at the time as one of the most innovative approaches to urban redevelopment in the country, but, Arms recalled, "there was no real magic to it. It was the product of a whole lot of circumstances and situations coming together at the right time."
Money, Arms said, was easily available at the time at low interest rates. The office vacancy rate in Washington was down to .4 per cent. And the county, through cajoling, bullying and cooperating with the developers, attempted to set its own priorities for the kind of buildings that were constructed. They pushed for free-standing high-rises, surrounded by light and air with underground parking. They encouraged the consolidation of smaller land parcels into larger ones, and agreements by which sidewalks, street lighting, and above ground pedestrian walkways would be the developers', not the county's, responsibility.
Soon land was increasing in value in Rosslyn at the rate of $.50 per square foot per month. In less than six years, land values went from $2 per square foot to $25. Throughout the 1960s, Rosslyn rang with the sound of the jackhammer as the sun glinted off hardhats and bulldozers.
"It was a long haul," said one developer. But, gradually, the tenants moved in. Eventually the developers made money. And the county, having turned over responsibility for most traditional county services to the developers in return for site plan approval, cleaned up. By 1974, the county had grossed nearly $43 million from Rosslyn, and spent only $13 million providing services, according to a recent fiscal profile written by Sally Clark of Richard E. Arms and Associates.
But according to one of the early Rosslyn developers, the area became a financial success for its early investors only after creditors seized several buildings in the area belonging to the Pomponio brothers. The brother's Virginia-based real estate empire ran into financial difficulties after they came under federal investigation in 1972.
"It was an ill wind that in this case blew somebody good," the developer said. "The new management of those buildings worked hard to get the kind of tenants that would provide a reasonable return in terms of rents."
Most of the Pompino tenants, he said, had been government agencies, which sometimes do not pay as high a price for office space as private commercial enterprises.
Still, Rosslyn's reality falls short of the planner's vision for it. "We lost the battle for apartments," Arms said. "Under 4,000 units exists in Rossyln, one-fourth of them contained in the massive Arlington Towers complex that was there before the redevelopment. Apartments, Arms said, were not profitable for developers in the 1960's under then existing densities of 45 units per acre.
It was only recently, in fact, that Rosslyn received the promise of a park of its own.
All in all, said long-range planner John Gessaman, "Rosslyn is a good example of what can be done by working with the private sector. Now, it's just a matter of the fine tuning."