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Peter’s Take: No to Rosslyn ‘Spirit of America Tower’

Peter Rousselot

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

ARLnow.com reported last week that local developer James Burch proposes to “build a 325-foot Space-Needle-like tourist destination, dubbed the Spirit of America Tower, in Rosslyn.”

The tower would be built on currently open-space, VDOT-owned land. In one of more than 25 comments he personally posted to that story, Burch (using the last name “Bureh”) revealed “we have been working on this, quietly, for about a year and a half.”

After ARLnow broke the story, Washington Business Journal (WBJ) reached out to a VDOT spokesman who acknowledged VDOT had met with Burch, but denied VDOT had made any commitments. And, County Board Chair Jay Fisette described Burch’s proposal as a “fantasy”.

Discussion

While Burch’s proposal deserves scorn, his quiet pursuit of it highlights the need for a long-range (out to 2040) strategic plan, prepared jointly with VDOT and other interested stakeholders, regarding how best to utilize the air rights throughout the I-66 corridor. That plan should include the VDOT parcel in Rosslyn with respect to which Burch currently seeks a long-term lease.

I-66 Air Rights

If we allow piecemeal, scavenger development of important individual parcels to occur in the absence of such a long-range plan, by the time we get around to it, the plan that’s best for Arlington will be hopelessly compromised.

This past October, WBJ reported that both Arlington and VDOT temporarily had suspended such planning, but that both sides still were open to it:

[A] VDOT spokeswoman … said Arlington has chosen not to pursue air rights development “to date,” but VDOT “would continue to work on any requests to explore other opportunities and locations.” …

I-66, from Falls Church through Rosslyn, acts as a “gash through part of our community,” said Arlington Board Chair Libby Garvey. Filling it in, she said, is a “long-term thing,” but the discussion is worth having, whether in Rosslyn or East Falls Church (where Garvey envisions a deck with parking below and a field above).

There may well have been good reasons for the temporary suspension of talks, but Arlington County now needs to work hard to:

  • quickly resolve any remaining obstacles,
  • further develop its own long-range land-use vision and negotiating strategy, and
  • then resume the conversations with VDOT.

JFAC Community Facilities Plan

JFAC’s overall mission importantly includes a directive from the County and School Boards to:

Place a special emphasis on long range planning for future County and APS facility needs…. Big picture, visionary thinking is encouraged, and the Commission should be a forum where fresh and creative ideas can be discussed freely.

Arlington County and JFAC should indeed engage in “big picture, visionary thinking” by carefully exploring all opportunities for Arlington to acquire new land either via air rights from VDOT, a land swap with VDOT, or some combination. The long-range plan for air rights in the I-66 corridor should be made available to JFAC.

Conclusion

Burch commented last week that “with our proposal, it is not costing the state or the county anything, and the project provides millions of dollars in tax income.” Despite such siren songs from Burch — or anyone else — Arlington should complete the two long-range planning studies described above, and discuss them thoroughly with the community, before making any deals that could undermine our long-range best interests in the I-66 corridor.

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