Arlington, VA

It was 12:50 a.m. by the time the Arlington County Board adjourned last night, having spent three hours debating a proposal for aerospace and defense giant Boeing to build a new regional headquarters complex near Crystal City.

After a lengthy back-and-forth discussion, the Board voted unanimously to approve the project, which won high marks for its economic benefits to the county but which was strongly opposed by the county’s own citizen-led transportation and planning commissions.

Opponents of the Boeing plan argued that allowing six-story, single-tenant office buildings on the 4.7 acre property — located between Crystal City and the county’s new Long Bridge Park — ran counter to Arlington’s original “smart growth” goal for a mixed-use office, residential and retail development there.

The Boeing complex, which the company will own instead of lease, won’t provide the kind of active streetscape befitting a property so close to a multi-million dollar county park and recreation center, opponents said. Instead, the property will be largely closed off to the public; buildings will be set back from the sidewalk with no ground floor retail and no public-use parking spaces (which could have been utilized during special events at the park). Transportation Commission Chair Bill Gearhart called the complex, which will have 555 underground parking spaces, “auto-oriented” as opposed to transit-oriented. The Planning Commission called the architecture of the proposed buildings “mediocre.”

“If this project is approved, the County would be setting a precedent that it is okay to shred everything in order to keep a company that is not working, living or playing well with its neighbors,” the Planning Commission wrote.

But Boeing supporters — including county staff, Arlington Economic Development, and the Crystal City Business Improvement District — argued that the hundreds of jobs and millions in annual tax revenue that will be generated by the new Boeing complex represents significant a benefit to the county that more than justifies the shift in land use goals required to approve the project.

“I think tonight presents us a unique opportunity in recruiting and retaining a major employer,” said County Manager Barbara Donnellan. “At a time of increased economic uncertainty, this level of commitment to a major employer is critical to the county’s future economic sustainability, especially in Crystal City, where the future impacts of BRAC are yet to be seen.”

In pushing for the proposal’s approval, however, even Donnellan admitted that it “was not without controversy.”

“I acknowlege that my recommending steers slightly away from some of our urban planning ideals,” she said. “But I believe we’re facing a set of extraordinary circumstances.”

Supporters made the case that the plan for mixed-use development on the proposed site — two run-down square blocks of abandoned industrial buildings and a shuttered, deteriorating hotel — was unrealistic in the near-term. Waiting years for market conditions to be right for a high-density mixed-use development, some said, could jeopardize the county’s plan to build an aquatics center as part of the second phase of the Long Bridge Park project. As part of the agreed-to Boeing proposal, financially-challenged developer Monument Realty will engage in a land swap with the county that will allow the aquatics center to be built.

Despite some security concerns, Boeing also agreed to allow public access the complex’s lawn area.

A Boeing manager who spoke last night touted the company’s financial support of numerous local charities in Arlington (Boeing has existing offices in Crystal City and Rosslyn, which will be consolidated into the new complex). Other arguments in favor of the new headquarters included the company’s agreement to contribute to Arlington’s affordable housing, public art and traffic mitigation funds; the elimination of the current industrial “blight” between Long Bridge Park and Crystal City; the addition of greenery and a Capital Bikeshare station to the site; and the opinion of some that the site — which sits on the Reagan National Airport flight path, along railroad tracks, and within earshot of Long Bridge Park’s lighted athletic fields — might be too noisy for potential residents.

During the late night discussion, County Board members described in length their displeasure with many aspects of the plan, and spoke approvingly of the findings of the planning and transportation commissions. In the end, however, they sided with county staff and voted to allow the Boeing project to move forward.

“This is important enough that we’re going to make some sacrifices that we’re never going to feel entirely good about,” said County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman, adding that approval of the Boeing site plan should not be construed as the Board setting a new precedence.

“This is unprecedented,” he said. “The Board voted in favor of the Boeing plan because this solidifies the presence of a major corporate entity in Arlington and brings us an important step closer to building the planned Aquatics Center.”

The Boeing complex — which is to serve as the company’s East Coast headquarters — will have up to 453,000 square feet of office space and is expected to achieve LEED Gold environmental certification. Boeing is planning to move in by the end of 2014, according to the Washington Business Journal.

The investment “affirms our commitment to Arlington and Northern Virginia,” said Boeing project manager Richard Arscott, following the board’s unanimous vote.

“Boeing looks forward to continuing corporate citizenship well into the future,” he said.

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