The large-scale PenPlace development proposed for Pentagon City is now going on its 10th Site Plan Review Committee (SPRC) meeting, but the project is expected to reach the Arlington County Board for a vote as soon as May.
Developer Vornado is proposing five buildings for the project: two secure office buildings, two standard office buildings, and one 300-room hotel, on a currently vacant parcel of land along Army Navy Drive, near the Pentagon. The 9.2 acre parcel is large enough that it was once considered as a possible site for the Nationals baseball stadium.
The buildings would be between 16 and 22 stories, and in all, the project would consist of 1.8 million square feet of office space and 25,000 square feet of retail space, mostly along the future extension of 12th Street S. between Eads and Fern Streets.
It appears likely that there will be more SPRC meetings on PenPlace even beyond the 10th meeting, scheduled for Feb. 4. The SPRC will eventually make non-binding recommendations to the Planning Commission, which will then consider and vote on whether to recommend the project for County Board approval. We’re told the Board is likely to take up the matter in May or June.
The extra-long SPRC process can be attributed to the size of the project, additional considerations required for the secure office buildings, and stiff opposition from some nearby residents.
While actual Pentagon City residents have been relatively quiet about PenPlace, members of the nearby Arlington Ridge Civic Association (ARCA) are among the project’s biggest critics. The project is not within the civic association’s boundaries, but residents there have circulated petitions, held meetings and posted flyers listing various objections to the project.
ARCA’s compaints include building height (nearly 300 feet); the proposed number of parking spaces (2,235) and the potential for increased traffic; a lack of public open space and insufficient community benefits; and the security measures necessary for the secure office buildings.
“Build a community not a compound,” said an ARCA presentation given on Nov. 15, 2012. Project critics say the secure office buildings will prevent full “activation” of the area for public use. They call for reducing the number of secure office buildings in the project to one, and placing that building along Army Navy Drive instead of the middle of the parcel.
ARCA has also proposed shorter buildings (<200 feet), replacing an office building with a residential building, and limiting parking. The association is also calling on Vornado to include an acre of contiguous public open space on the site, including a play area for children, recreation ares for adults and a dog park.
Molly Watson, who has been leading ARCA’s opposition to PenPlace, said jokingly at a SPRC meeting in December that she would prefer a baseball stadium to PenPlace as proposed. ARCA fought a proposal in 2003 to build the new Nationals baseball stadium on the current PenPlace parcel, which was vacant at the time and has remained so since.
“I would take the baseball stadium with only 80 games per year” over the traffic PenPlace would generate on a daily basis, she said.
Arlington County planning staff say they’re still examining traffic impacts but have, to some degree, downplayed concerns about traffic and open space.
“The Pentagon City Metro stop and the Pentagon Metro stop will help alleviate a lot of trips from the site,” said county planner Jason Beske. PenPlace will also benefit from the future Crystal City streetcar, which will run up 12th Street, and from proximity to the highway network around the Pentagon, he said.
“Adjacency to 395 will help to keep traffic off of local streets,” Beske added. “It will be a very multimodal location.”
At the December meeting, planning staff addressed concerns about open space by pointing out that PenPlace is in proximity to existing open space areas, like Long Bridge Park, Virginia Highlands Park, Metropolitan Park, Hooper Memorial Park, Pentagon Row Plaza, and the Crystal City Water Park.
The current PenPlace proposal calls for a 12th Street Plaza that will “become a popular neighborhood gathering place, not unlike the plaza at Pentagon Row,” with ground floor retail and other amenities. The proposal also calls for the creation of new road through the site — Elm Street — which will be lined with trees.
Aurora Highlands Civic Association President Jim Oliver, who is generally supportive of the project, has suggested that PenPlace needs one additional component to become a true community asset. Oliver says PenPlace needs a “destination activity,” and has suggested a shooting range, bowling alley or jazz club might fill that local void.
Some ARCA members have suggested that their concerns aren’t being given as much weight as other neighborhoods because the county is intent on “dumping” development in the Pentagon City and Crystal City areas.
“If it is so bad, why would the County Board approve this plan?” an ARCA flyer asked. “In short: money.”
Vornado has offered to pay $20 million toward the new Long Bridge Park aquatics center and has offered the county land for streetcar facilities, according to the flyer. The completed project will generate $10 million in annual property tax revenue for the county, according to Vornado, equivalent to 1.5 cents of the current property tax rate paid by Arlington residents.
“Our community’s needs and rights are not being considered in the PenPlace plan, and have been ignored in the County processes to date,” the ARCA flyer said.
Vornado counters that they’ve been working with residents and the SPRC to help refine the project design. For one, they’ve presented an two additional alternatives for the project that include one or no secure office buildings — though they say they want to retain the option to build two secure buildings, should that be required by a tenant like the Department of Defense.
Vornado also says PenPlace will provide community benefits, like the 12th Street Plaza, road and transit enhancements, and the creation of a “sense of place.”
“PenPlace will help complete a new energetic and pedestrian-friendly environment that currently does not exist,” the company said. “The proposed office, hotel and retail uses will balance the residential and retail uses to the south in Metropolitan Park (planned for 3,212 residential units).”
“We are very excited about the PenPlace project,” Mitch Bonanno, Senior Vice President of Development at Vornado/Charles E. Smith, told ARLnow.com. “The proposed office and hotel uses will complement the surrounding existing and planned high-density residential and retail to create an active and vibrant future 12th Street corridor. This corridor will truly knit together the Pentagon City and Crystal City neighborhoods at this location, which is also the central meeting point of the two County planned streetcar lines.”
“Locating high-density mixed-use development here, near Metro, VRE, I-395 HOV access, and future streetcar is the epitome of smart growth,” Bonanno said.
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