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Height dominates discussion of development proposal for Clarendon parking lot

(Updated at 7:10 p.m.) A planned development roughly between Clarendon and Courthouse could go as high as 16 stories, though county staff and some nearby residents are asking for it to be shorter.

At its meeting last week, the Arlington Planning Commission voted in favor of advertising an amendment to the General Land Use Plan which governs development for what is now a parking lot at 2636 Wilson Blvd.

The County Board is now set to vote at its meeting this Saturday on whether to advertise public hearings on the GLUP change.

The change calls for rezoning from “service commercial,” which allows the building to be up to 4 stories, to “Office-Apartment-Hotel.” This designation would allow the development to be between 6 and 16 stories high.

But the crux of the conversation last week was exactly how many stories should the development actually be allowed to get to.

The proposed project, dubbed “Courthouse West,” would redevelop a parking lot that’s just east of the Clarendon Whole Foods store. The lot currently houses a number of “ghost kitchen” trailers. A PNC Bank branch is also part of the development site, per documents filed with the county.

Ballston-based CRC Companies wants a 16-story apartment building there, as would be allowed by the new zoning designation.

However, county staff is calling for the development to be rezoned as a “medium” office-apartment-hotel development with a maximum height of up to 12 stories. And members of the public, at least those who filled out a recent online survey, want it to be even shorter than that.

In a survey first disseminated in December, three options were provided — 6, 10, and 17 stories — and about half of respondents, in total about 175, choose the six-story option.

After nearly two and a half hours of discussion and public comment last week, the commission voted against staff recommendations and in favor of advertising the 16-story option.

A number of commissioners noted that the vote was intended to allow continued discussion about 16 stories and not take it off the table; it didn’t necessarily constitute a recommendation for the development to go that high, they said.

County staff’s recommendation of 12 stories is essentially a compromise. There’s an understanding that the development could have the right to go to 16 stories, but staff doesn’t want to set a “precedent” since so many other buildings in that part of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor are shorter.

During the public comment section, a number of nearby residents went into detail about why they didn’t want a 16-story, or even a 12-story, building on that specific parcel of land that lies halfway between the Clarendon and Courthouse Metro stations. Among the reasons were concerns about traffic, pedestrian safety and school crowding.

John Carten of the Lyon Village Citizens’ Association called the survey that went out to the public “very flawed and biased” because it only offered three choices. He says the residents he represents want a six-story building at maximum.

“Twelve story buildings would tower over houses in Lyon Village,” he said. “This will open the door to other developers who want the same density.”

(Carten and the association have also been sharply critical of the potential for more development on the other side of the largely Metro-accessible neighborhood that could result from the ongoing Langston Blvd planning process.)

Still, other residents noted that a 12- or 16-story apartment building would contribute more affordable housing and better take advantage of the neighborhood’s transit options.

Several commissioners questioned both county staff and the developer about the number of affordable units that could be available if the building was 16 stories, but neither staff nor CRC were able to provide a direct answer.

“By using asking for flexibility, we are not necessarily endorsing additional height without extraordinary contributions [from the developer],” Commissioner Denyse Bagley said.

“I want to be sure that we as the planning commission, in our recommendations to the County Board, don’t box ourselves in at this point,” said Commissioner James Lantelme. “I want us to have enough [time] to discuss the three scenarios… as well as do this for the sake for the neighborhoods around [the development].”

Beyond affordable housing, county staff said other potential community benefits from the project would include additional public space, public art and “multimodal” streetscape improvements.

The Planning Commission and County Board are expected to discuss and vote on details of the new Courthouse West development, including height, at their respective meetings in September.

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