The Olmsted Building, the controversial 14-story granite office building that was to be the centerpiece of the rebirth of Arlington's Clarendon community, is 18 months behind schedule and its owners have not leased a single square foot of space.
The building already has been the object of protracted negotiations with neighborhood groups and the county involving its size and density. It also has been in a six-month dispute with the C&P Telephone Co. about an underground phone cable. The project was delayed further by a large fire last summer and a smaller one several months ago.
Now, some commercial brokers say the problems have made the building "unattractive" to tenants. Olmsted's owners say they may try to sell the building, which sits atop the Clarendon Metro subway station at 3100 N. Fairfax Dr.
"When a building starts to have repeated delays, it creates a negative impression to tenants," said one commercial-office-space broker who works in the Northern Virginia market. "In those cases, if the company has no previous track record for development, people will shy away from it."
Several commercial brokers in the area, as well as people close to the project, said that the building has suffered partly because its developer, the International Bank of Washington, had too little experience in development for a project as large as the Olmsted Building.
Guy Martin, one of the architects of the building and now project manager for the limited partnership handling the development, acknowledged that the project has been "slower than we had hoped," but blamed the delays on "unforeseeable" problems.
When the Clarendon Metro Limited Partnership -- an International Bank subsidiary that was handling the development -- first drafted plans for the building in 1981, company officials envisioned a "landmark" building with "high architecture" that would put Clarendon back on the map.
Until the late 1950s, the Clarendon area was a hub of business and social activity in the county. In recent years, many of the older businesses left, to be replaced by what some call "Little Saigon," a collection of small businesses run by refugees who fled Asia.
The Olmsted Building, the developers said, would begin the redevelopment that would draw business back to the area and provide a "focal point" for the new Clarendon. The building was named for Maj. Gen. George Olmsted, former chairman of the board of the International Bank and a longtime Arlington resident.
Martin and David Jones, of the architecture firm Martin & Jones, designed a 15-story, 221-foot Art Deco landmark, a building neighboring residents said was interesting but too tall.
However, one complaint caught the developer by surprise: the National Capital Planning Commission said the building was too similar to the Washington Monument.
The commission, which guides planning decisions concerning the federal establishment in Washington, asked the architects to change the building's pyramid metal roof, saying that the design would "mimic" the Washington Monument and be "a significant adverse visual intrusion" on the view from the Capitol's west terrace. Because the Clarendon site is one of the highest points in Arlington, the building is visible from far away.
Hugh Mulligan, senior vice president of a company that is one of the general partners in the development partnership, said he had been "floored" by the commission's reaction.
"Everybody always criticizes the square boxes built in Rosslyn. And then when you try to do something that could be a landmark, you get criticized," he said.
Some residents in the Clarendon area, however, joined the NCPC attack, saying that the project should be scaled back. Others said they welcomed the idea of the building and looked forward to Clarendon's revitalization.
While the NCPC has no planning control over Arlington, the county board reduced the overall size of the building in June 1982. The board agreed to a 200-foot building, with two floors of shops, restaurants and other commercial uses topped by 12 stories of office space.
As soon as it started construction, however, the partnership ran into another problem -- a telephone cable buried on the property that contained 83,000 pairs of wires, including all the long-distance lines for nearby Rosslyn.
"That set us off schedule six months at the very beginning," Martin said. "The lawyers were in court, and we couldn't go ahead without cutting the cable, which we felt would be ungentlemanly. So we waited till it was settled."
Eventually, C&P Telephone agreed to move the cable, and construction continued.
With small delays, the building moved along until last summer. Then, shortly after midnight on July 25, a three-alarm fire broke out on the top two floors of the partially built building. A total of 10 engine companies -- nearly all of Arlington County's firefighting capacity -- and equipment from Fairfax County and Alexandria fought a blaze that burned out of control for an hour.
Firefighters were hampered by an illegally parked dumpster and a standpipe that would not reach to the top floors, where its water was needed.
"The fire also set us back quite a bit," Martin said. Fire damage was estimated at $350,000.
Several months later, A. A. Biero Construction Co., a cement contractor, was found guilty of blocking a ground-level standpipe with an illegally parked dumpster and fined $600. The foreman for the job, Dave Harvey, was found guilty of the same charge; he was fined $200, with $150 suspended.
A month after that, Richmarr Construction Corp., the contractor for the project, was found guilty of not providing a standpipe high enough to reach the upper floors, as required by the county building code. The company was fined $1,000 with $500 suspended; the foreman, Ronald Wood, also was found guilty and required to pay court costs.
A smaller fire several months ago had no impact on the building's timetable, Martin said.
"If we had not had any problems, the building would have been finished in late fall of 1984," Martin said. Now the building is scheduled to open in April.
Others who have watched the project said they believe some of the problems could have been anticipated and avoided.
"They didn't know what to look for, so they often didn't realize they had problems until things had gone too far," said a source close to the project for several years. "They weren't on top of the project as they should have been."
Martin agreed that in some ways development was not the primary focus of the company that undertook the Olmsted Building.
"International Bank of Washington was not primarily a development bank," Martin said. "International Bank acquired the property back in the 1960s. And then when the Metro was put through, they decided they had the prime site in Clarendon and decided to develop it. They built a building because they had a site."
Despite the delays, Martin said that the company is in "terminal negotiations" with four prospective tenants. Even if they sign, however, they would be leasing only 20,000 square feet of the 250,000 square feet in the building. Martin added that the General Services Administration, which is interested in leasing 60,000 square feet of space for offices along Metro's Orange line corridor through Arlington, has talked to Olmsted officials. The company is asking annual rental rates of between $20 and $24 a foot, about average for the area.
Other commercial brokers say that the Olmsted Building may be suffering because it is the first project in Clarendon, and therefore essentially "a building ahead of its time."
Richard Hollander, senior vice president and branch manager for Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial leasing company, said: "Tenants interested in Rosslyn, but unable to find space there, are leap-frogging over the other Orange Line Metro stops to Ballston. It may be too early for the Olmsted Building."
Thomas Owens, vice president for the real estate brokerage division of Spaulding & Slye, said that Ballston is attracting tenants partly because there is a lot of retail and office development either in existence or soon to open. Clarendon, said Owens, does not have such attractions.
Arlington County Board Chairman Mary Margaret Whipple said the county is not concerned about the Olmsted Building's delays.
"Just seeing the building under construction is enough for people to see the center of Clarendon is being revitalized," Whipple said. The lack of other redevelopment, Whipple said, is primarily due to the trouble developers have had assembling sites. "So many of the properties are small with numerous owners, and assemblages have taken much longer than in other areas of the county."
Martin said: "There is no question Clarendon is a pioneering location. We are feeling our way." He said the company would be "very happy" if the building is leased within the next year, but believes it may take as long as 18 months. Other commercial brokers said 18 months would be "optimistic."
The Clarendon Metro Limited Partnership, however, may not wait around to see the building leased.