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Committee: Amazon HQ2 Designs Are Colorful But Unambitious

Amazon’s designs for a new headquarters need to do more to become true landmarks for the Pentagon City skyline, say members of an Arlington County planning committee.

At the first Site Plan Review Committee meeting for HQ2 last night (Monday), Amazon and ZGF Architects pitched the new 2.1 million square foot project in Pentagon City. The meeting, held in Shirlington, primarily focused on the design and architecture of the buildings, with other concerns about Amazon’s arrival saved for future meetings.

Amazon’s proposal involves the construction of two new office buildings at the corner of 15th Street S. and S. Eads Street — almost the perfect midway point between the Pentagon City and Crystal City Metro stations. The project is part of the first phase for Amazon’s permanent offices opening in Arlington.

Metropolitan Park Phases 6 and 7/8, as the project is dubbed in reports, consists of a pair of buildings with outward-facing retail and restaurants, and the Amazon headquarters portion of the building facing inwards towards a central park.

Brian Earle, the project architect with ZGF Architects, said the focus of the design was integrating the building into the neighborhood.

Design Evolution, Color Revolution

There are no rooftop signs planned for the project, and the exterior design is terracotta masonry and glass — an inoffensive design that will feel familiar to anyone who has seen the new Marymount buildings in Ballston or the Wharf in D.C., Amazon’s architects said.

The project drew the most praise where it stood out, and most of the criticism was focused on where the project seemed unambitious. Earle played up the modernist and art deco influences of other buildings on the block, like The Gramercy and The Bartlett, but to the untrained eye, they seem to have the same tan and dark glass facade.

“These are the tallest buildings in the area,” Planning Commissioner James Lantelme said. “It’s handsome, but I’m wondering if more can be done with the crown. Some buildings don’t have a formal crown but a distinctive top. This is just a continuation of the block going up. Is there anything that can be done to make it a centerpiece of this area?”

Committee members were mainly impressed with the polychrome glass planned for the building, with colors ranging from fuchsia to teal across the buildings.

“I’m always excited for colors,” said Planning Commissioner Nancy Iacomini. “It’s always been beige or grey. Rosslyn is a sea of grey and it’s just as bad as Ballston beige. I’m happy to see the terracotta as grey but a lot of polychrome.”

“People are getting tired of seeing the same beige building,” Lantelme agreed. “I’m hoping this is the start of a different design trend away from the beige. We may have an emergence of a colorful district.”

Retail Tensions

Plans for ground floor retail in the Amazon buildings was also a focus of some excitement — and concern. Brick and mortar retail is suffering, ironically in no small part due to the building’s primary tenant, and committee members expressed concern that the project could have too much ground-floor retail that it wouldn’t be able to fill.

Earle said the idea is to have a 50-50 split between restaurants and community-serving retail, like barber shops and pet stores, on the ground floor.

“One of Amazon’s strategies is they design the in-house food service [to serve] only 25 percent of the lunchtime traffic to encourage employees to go to other restaurants,” said Earle.

Commissioners also couldn’t resist little jabs at the Amazon-versus-retail tension, particularly the middling reception the company’s physical bookstores have gotten so far.

“A Busboys and Poets would be great there,” said Planning Commissioner Jane Siegel, “with their book store.”

The next meeting for the project is planned for September 23 at 7 p.m. in the Parks Operations Building (2700 S. Taylor Street).

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