Virginia Hospital Center executives believe they’ve satisfied all the demands of Arlington officials in drawing up revised plans for the facility’s $250 million expansion, setting the stage for the project to move ahead as soon as this week.
The County Board is set to consider the matter once again tomorrow (Tuesday), after delaying a decision on the hospital’s expansion back in September. The Board laid out a series of specific changes it hoped to see from the hospital as it embarks on the project, which is designed to add 101 hospital beds and a new outpatient facility to match rising demand in the county, and urged VHC leaders to smooth over its rocky relationship with some people living near the existing campus at 1701 N. George Mason Drive.
The Board initially envisioned taking up the matter next month, but VHC leaders were enthusiastic enough about their progress that they pushed for a vote at Tuesday’s meeting instead.
Adrian Stanton, the hospital’s vice president for business development and community relations, says VHC officials have spent last few months convening “a series of public meetings with community members, as well as with neighborhood civic associations adjacent to the hospital,” to craft new designs for the expansion, leading to his renewed optimism for the project’s prospects.
“These discussions have been open, honest, and productive,” Stanton wrote in a statement. “As a result of this progress, we asked to present a revised plan to the Board during its scheduled Nov. 27 meeting. We are grateful that we have been granted that opportunity, and remain hopeful that we will be presenting a plan that is acceptable to all parties involved.”
The chief concern of the hospital’s neighborhoods, county planners and Board members alike is how the VHC’s new buildings will fit into the community. The hospital is hoping to add a 230,000-square-foot, seven-story outpatient facility and a 10-story parking garage, and critics of the original design worried those additions would effectively wall off the hospital from the single-family homes surrounding it.
Accordingly, the Board’s requests for changes centered around improving the facade of the garage and adding more pedestrian connections to (and through) the site, to make it feel more accessible. And, per details laid out in a new report prepared by county staff, the hospital seems to have made all the tweaks the Board was envisioning.
For the new parking garage, the hospital now plans to add “vertical mesh screens” and vary its “brick colors and pattern to provide visual interest,” the report says. The hospital also will eliminate one of the garage’s entrances from along a service road running horizontally through the property, and relocate a sidewalk to the south side of that road to provide a more accessible “east-west” connection through the site.
VHC officials also hope to provide a better north-south pedestrian walkway through the property, creating a corridor that runs from 19th Street N. to connect to both the garage and the new outpatient building. In tandem with that change, the hospital proposes “rounding the corner of the outpatient building to improve sight lines for pedestrians and to soften the edge of the building” so that there’s “no longer a continuous line of buildings for the entire length of 19th Street N.,” staff wrote.
According to the report, representatives with the John M. Langston Citizens Association initially expressed some concern that the walkway revisions still weren’t quite what the Board had requested, but the hospital altered its plans slightly to meet those worries.
Additionally, the hospital will add other features neighbors requested over the last few months of meetings, including new pedestrian safety devices like a rapid flashing beacon at the intersection of N. George Mason Drive and 19th Street N.
All of the hospital’s proposed changes will slightly reduce the capacity of the new parking garage, however, after it already agreed to a hefty cutback in spaces in a bid to ease the concerns of transit advocates. In all, the garage is set to see a reduction about 46 spaces if the Board signs off on these changes, for a total of about 1,694 spaces.
While the design changes may well meet the Board’s standards, they’re unlikely to satisfy all the hospital’s critics. Many neighbors remain concerned about the height of the new buildings, and county planners have urged the Board to require the hospital to adhere to a more robust long-range planning process — the hospital is planning a full redevelopment of its campus in the long term, but can only kick off those plans once it executes this expansion.
The Board will get a chance to have its final say on the matter Tuesday — the public hearing on the issue is closed, setting the stage for an up-or-down vote. Should the Board approve the plans, at long last, the county will sign over a parcel of land along N. Edison Street to power the expansion, and receive a coveted property on S. Carlin Springs Road from the hospital.
The Board will also review a $500,000 grant to set up a new pilot program and expand mental health services at the hospital. The program would empower a new specialist to divert kids and teens arriving at the hospital with behavioral health issues into treatment programs, in order to prevent them from experiencing more serious problems in the future or getting caught up in the criminal justice system.