Several hundred residents turned out Tuesday night to debate the proposed Olmsted Foundation Building, 15 stories of shops and offices that has become the biggest planning dispute in the county since Rosslyn.
As first drawn, the granite and limestone building was criticized for resembling an imitation of the Daily Planet building in Superman comics. To mollify critics, the architects softened the building's art deco look, taking away the jagged edges and adding more glass.
But none of the changes affected the design features that have most bothered the National Capitol Planning Commission and neighborhood activists. The proposed Olmsted Building still has a pyramid roof--which the NCPC says "mimics" the Washington Monument. And it is still 221 feet tall, 68 feet over Arlington's height limits, which residents say sets a bad precedent for future development in the Clarendon area.
"The first design was unusual but interesting," said Louise Chestnut, one of a string of speakers at the public hearing at the Washington-Lee High School auditorium. "The second one is a dead bore."
By early yesterday morning, after five hours of testimony from more than 90 speakers, the controversy was still unresolved. On a vote of 3 to 2, the Arlington County Board followed the advice of the county Planning Commission and at 1:30 a.m. agreed to delay any decision on the building for another two months.
The county's planning staff has recommended approval of height and density "bonuses" for the Olmstead buidling, to be located south of the Clarendon Metro stop on North Highland Street. In its view, the building would be a "signature" landmark for the Clarendon area, which once was the hub of Arlington's commercial district but has fallen into decline in recent years.
About half of the audience at the hearing came to speak out in favor of the building, arguing that it would provide the spark needed to prompt revitalization of their neighborhood. "Clarendon has been waiting for its first crane for years," said Herve Aitken, a local resident. "Now Clarendon's day has finally come."
Delay was the goal of several neighboring civic associations arguing that the Olmsted Building should not be approved until after the county has drawn up its long-awaited plan that is supposed to set guidelines for the Metro-spawned growth along Arlington's main thoroughfares.
By making exceptions for the Olmsted building, the critics argued, the county board would be setting a dangerous precedent for future developers. "If you allow the developers a honeymoon tonight," warned Alisa Cowen, a spokesman for the Lyon Village Civic Association, "they will not respect your sector plan tomorrow."