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Pets, park, pedestrians present problems for planned apartment towers in Crystal City

Dog poop, a lackluster park and imposing tower façades.

These are lingering concerns for some county commission members and residents who recently reviewed designs for two proposed apartment towers from JBG Smith in Crystal City.

The developer proposes building two towers with a total of 1,440 apartment units where the restaurant Jaleo (2250 Crystal Drive) used to be, and where an 11-story office building stands (223 23rd Street S). The new towers would have ground-floor retail and a parking garage underground.

Architects went back to the drawing board after a meeting in July to improve designs, and generally, these improvements were welcomed during a Site Plan Review Committee meeting last week.

Still, commissioners, community members and county staff said a planned interim park should be more vibrant — with ample amenities to separate dogs and their droppings from other visitors — and the towers should have more pedestrian-scale architecture, so that walking by does not feel claustrophobic and shady.

“I do hope there will be signs saying ‘This is not a dog park’ because people will try their hardest to use it as such,” said Ben D’Avanzo, a nearby resident representing the Aurora Highlands Civic Association, during the meeting on Thursday. “There’s only so much we can do to control that and prevent what happened at Met Park happens here.”

Before Amazon began rebuilding the park, Metropolitan Park was best known for being a large patch of grass where dogs from neighboring apartment buildings relieved themselves.

The 2010 Crystal City Sector Plan envisions three park spaces, totalling some 26,000 square feet, but one of those parks would require JBG Smith to redevelop apartments at 2221 S. Clark Street. In the interim, as part of this project, JBG Smith will create a temporary 8,000 square-foot park on the southwest corner of 223 23rd Street S.

Commissioners had also criticized initial designs for the park near JBG Smith’s planned towers for being “just a lawn,” said Planning Commissioner James Schroll during a meeting last week.

“Some of the concerns we received from you guys is that there may be foot traffic cutting through this lawn and there were concerns pet owners would use it for dog relief, and we didn’t really want that,” said Amanda Walker, with OJB Landscape Architecture.

Landscapers added pet relief areas and plantings around the park’s edges to prevent people from creating desire paths. The park is designed to allow for flexible, removable furniture to accommodate concerts, fitness classes and picnics and become a “destination for the community,” Walker said.

Before and after changes to designs for the interim open space at 223 23rd Street S. (via Arlington County)

“Right now, this looks good, but we’ve got lots of parks that look like this all over the area. It’s going to be hard to attract people to it in this interim period,” said Michael Dowell, representing the Crystal City Citizen Review Council. “If we really want to take a chance, let’s get some massive sculpture — that you can move…”

“… to the next interim park,” said Chris Slatt, representing the Transportation Commission at the SPRC meeting, completing Dowell’s sentence.

Arlington encourages interim parks as a way for developers to activate their publicly accessible but privately owned open space slated for eventual redevelopment as a building or park. Sculptures are a preferred art installation for the county’s public arts division, for their durability and visual impact.

County staff, meanwhile, are concerned that the towers are not set back far enough from the street level. Offsetting all but the ground floor of the tower “can ensure a pedestrian-centered streetscape,” said county planner Michael Cullen.

“A sheer façade wall can feel less inviting,” he said. “Implementing a high-quality façade improvement alone doesn’t compensate for unsculpted building forms from the 1970s… the addition of a retail liner… shows how tower step-backs are meaningful in creating a pleasant pedestrian experience.”

Pedestrian-scale architecture examples from Arlington County in Crystal City (via Arlington County)

Currently, the set-back for 2250 Crystal Drive is 22 inches along Crystal Drive, with no setback planned for 23rd Street S.

Planning Commissioner Leonardo Sarli quipped that “22 inches isn’t a set back — that’s like a material switch.”

Generally, commissioners appreciated the tiers built into the design for 2250 Crystal Drive at the southern corner of 23rd Street S. and Crystal Drive, but wanted to see this design wrap all around the block.

Proposed setbacks for 2250 Crystal Drive at the southern corner of 23rd Street S. and Crystal Drive (via Arlington County)

Deeper setbacks do mean less buildable area to use for apartments, critics say. A JBG Smith representative added that changing the setbacks too much will impact the height of the building and light into residential units midway up the apartment tower.

“When we’re talking about the buildings to the north along Crystal Drive in that retail strip, I think it’s important to point out that these are separate buildings,” said attorney Kedrick Whitmore, representing JBG Smith. “Those are not examples of building step-backs; that’s an example of retail liner being added onto an existing office building.”

“I guess that’s a little up to interpretation… Advocating for your client as always, Mr. Whitmore,” Schroll said, eliciting chuckles from some attendees.

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