Neighbors ask county to reconsider dense residential development planned for Pentagon City

RiverHouse in Pentagon City at sunset (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

A group of neighbors is calling on the county to take a moderate approach to residential redevelopment in the shadow of Amazon’s HQ2.

Next month, on Tuesday, Feb. 22, the Arlington County Board is poised to consider adopting a new planning document that lays out a vision for the next 30-plus years of growth in the Pentagon City neighborhood. The plan calls for a significant amount of redevelopment and infill development, mostly residential, more green spaces and new “biophilic” walking and biking paths.

The Pentagon City Planning Study draft was created because Amazon’s arrival exhausted nearly all the development envisioned in the 45-year-old plan currently guiding the neighborhood’s growth.

One significant source of near-term infill development would be at RiverHouse apartment complex on S. Joyce Street. Its owner, once Vornado and now JBG Smith, has long eyed redeveloping its surface parking lots and open spaces. The document recommends no more than 150 units per acre on the 36-acre site, which currently has a ratio of 49 units per acre.

That’s excessive for a complex with 1,670 units already, according to members of “RiverHouse Neighbors for Sensible Density.” The group and an associated movement, “Dense That Makes Sense,” are made of nearby residents who say a lack of community engagement has allowed the draft to move forward that recommends adding too many units to RiverHouse, among other concerns.

Pentagon City Planning Study Area (via Arlington County)

“RNSD is especially concerned about the Plan’s proposal for developer JBG Smith’s property, RiverHouse — already the fourth largest apartment complex in the Greater Washington, D.C. area,” the group said in a statement. “Because the Plan was developed without wide and diverse community representation, the Plan 1) does not represent a balanced community perspective, and 2) fails to articulate how it will deliver the community benefits it promises.”

Since August 2020, the county’s outreach has included interviewing stakeholders and property owners, asking the public to submit slides showing their vision of Pentagon City, and holding focus groups, five virtual public workshops, and a walking tour, said Erika Moore, a spokeswoman for the Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development.

They received 60 slides from community members on their vision, and 146 responses on an online engagement after a virtual open house, she told ARLnow. County staff also met with several county commissions, committees and civic associations as the plan was being drafted. In addition to emails and newsletters, she said there have been signs sharing information on the plan in public spaces.

“The population growth scenarios in the draft plan are not requirements for development,” Moore said. “The scenarios were developed to analyze implications for population growth, transportation, urban design, economic development, and other factors.”

This is not a new concern. Neighbors pushed back against JBG Smith’s 2019 proposal to add 1,000 units to the site (for a density of 72 units per acre) and at the time, some Arlington County officials and planners were also skeptical of the plan. Now, the new plan’s upward limit of 150 units per acre has some Dense That Makes Sense members longing for JBG Smith’s initial plans.

With seven weeks until the County Board is set to vote, the group is urging the Board to pause the plan.

“The RiverHouse site presents an opportunity for the Arlington County Board to lead the world in showing how a community can come together to diversify its housing stock and integrate affordable opportunities for renting and homeownership — while improving, not reducing, the quality of life,” the group’s statement says.

More than 1,000 people have signed a petition opposing plans for the RiverHouse site — aerial renderings of which include 18 new buildings — and the decrease in tree canopy and increase in air and noise pollution they say will follow.

The vision for redeveloping Pentagon City (via Arlington County)

Petitioners request more “wide and representative community engagement” that “fully incorporate[s] community feedback.” They also request the preservation of current tree canopy levels, which they estimate is around 40%, and a study of potential environmental pollution.

According to the new study, 55% of the redeveloped RiverHouse site should have buildings no taller than five stories, at least 30% should be planted and 20% covered by tree canopy. The plan envisions about four acres of added green space across the site, including an expansion of Grace Hopper Park at the southern end of the site.

Dense That Makes Sense, meanwhile, is planning additional outreach over the next few weeks. It passed out flyers this past week and will be distributing yard signs and conducting “peaceful demonstrations in high traffic areas throughout” the 22202 zip code, which includes Pentagon City and Crystal City.

Green space planned in the Pentagon City planning area (via Arlington County)