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Electrifying artwork planned for Dominion substation generates buzz

(Updated 9:20 a.m.) A Dominion Energy substation under renovation near Crystal City is set to electrify the neighborhood with an artistic façade.

The energy provider is expanding and remodeling its substation at the intersection of S. Hayes Street and S. Fern Street to meet the increasing demand for electricity as the population in the National Landing area — and Amazon’s nearby HQ2 — grows. It obtained the extra land needed for the expansion a year ago through an agreement with the County Board.

As part of the renovation, Dominion will be adding public art to one building face — “inVisible” by California-based artist Elena Manferdini — and building a public plaza.

Manferdini’s energetic design features vibrant ceramic tiles interacting with grayscale panels that extend toward the sky. But it’s a big departure from the “cloud concept” Dominion chose last year in response to community feedback.

Dominion Energy’s original “cloud concept” proposed for its substation near Crystal City (via Dominion Energy)

Her livelier proposal proved polarizing. While well-received by Dominion — and approved by the Arlington County Public Art Committee in March — reactions during last month’s Arlington Ridge Civic Association meeting were negatively charged for two reasons, says one attendee.

“1) Although the good intention to keep the building from being bland was well understood by the attendees, the artwork seemed too ‘busy’ for them, and 2) the artwork is being done by a non-local artist,” Tina Ghiladi said in an email. “At best, some reactions were neutral, because the substation is not in Arlington Ridge nor within our line of sight.”

Dominion Energy spokeswoman Peggy Fox says Manferdini, an award-winning artist with two decades of experience, was chosen on the strength of her proposal.

“We were hopeful to find a local artist for this project,” Fox said. “However, Elena proved to be the superior candidate by listening to both the desires of the community and representing the function of a substation and its ‘invisible’ importance in the community. It was clear she did her homework and drew inspiration from both angles. Elena (and her design ‘inVisible’) was chosen because she was the best candidate for this job.”

Manferdini describes her project as a representation of the unseen force of electricity and an invitation to the audience to question their relationship to it.

“Every day, we are surrounded by one of the most important innovations of all time, electricity,” she said in a March meeting. “Its energy powers every area of our modern lives. And yet we can’t see it. Like gravity, electricity is an invisible force we only recognize when it acts upon other objects.”

“inVisible” by Atelier Manferdini, the planned artwork for Dominion Energy’s substation near Crystal City (via Dominion Energy)

Ghiladi says some negative reaction softened when Dominion explained her vision and that she was selected “because of her experience in, and passion for, the subject.” Overall, neighbors like the other changes, she says.

“The members were positive/supportive about all other aspects of the project, namely improving our power network, as well as the removal of the lattice roof,” she said.

Fox underscored the community engagement Dominion conducted throughout the process.

“In addition to correspondence with nearby Civic Associations, mainly Aurora Highlands, a community meeting was held in March 2021 where we introduced Elena Manferdini and her plans,” she said. “At the meeting, we did not receive any negative feedback.”

Aurora Highlands Civic Association President Scott Miles had some correspondence with Dominion, but the extent of the civic association’s input was in a survey last year when residents picked the “cloud concept” over the other option, an “articulated cube concept.”

Fox says that’s because there were concerns birds would fly into it.

The “articulated cube concept” Dominion Energy considered for its substation near Crystal City (via Dominion Energy)

He says he hasn’t heard much negative feedback from residents in his civic association.

“There may be residents that have issues with it, but they have not shared those opinions with the civic association,” Miles said. “It is also very possible people aren’t aware of the art plans; there is so much work going on in this area that it is incredibly difficult to stay informed about it all.”

The civic association president added that artwork is preferred to a large, undecorated structure.

“Art was never a requirement for this project, but we were happy to see Dominion put forth the idea to help offset the visual impact of a large structure that would replace green space and trees,” Miles said.

“inVisible” is still a ways from being installed, however.

The removal of the lattice roof, originally scheduled for this month, has been postponed until next spring, Fox said.

Construction should be done in early 2022, she confirmed. Dominion expects Manferdini’s art will be installed in late 2022 or early 2023, depending on when the substation is up and running. The plaza is slated for redesign in the fall of 2022 and the whole project is expected to conclude in the spring of 2023.

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