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Ballston Macy’s redevelopment project includes the most hotly debated left turn in a decade

A proposed left-turn lane off of N. Glebe Road in Ballston could be the smallest, yet most scrutinized traffic change in 10 years.

As part of the planned redevelopment of the Ballston Macy’s, Insight Property Group proposes to add a left-turn option at the intersection of 7th Street N. and N. Glebe Road. It will be for drivers going southbound on Glebe who want to turn onto a proposed private drive abutting the planned grocery store, which will be located at the base of Insight’s proposed 16-story, 555-unit apartment building.

“It was the most thoroughly vetted transportation scenario in the time that I’ve been with Arlington County,” transportation planner Dennis Sellin, who has worked with the county for 10 years, told the Planning Commission last night (Monday).

Transportation changes for the Ballston Macy’s development (via Arlington County)

During the meeting, the Planning Commission gave a green light to the redevelopment, which will go before the Arlington County Board for approval later this month.

After the Transportation Commission voted to defer the project solely on the basis of the left turn, Planning Commission members supported a condition for the project that county staff work with Insight and the Virginia Department of Transportation to come up with more pedestrian-oriented options for the intersection.

“I do not think it’s reasonable to hold up the project for this, given that there’s apparently continued good faith work on the intersection to improve its pedestrian-friendliness,” Commissioner Jim Lantelme said. “I want to make clear that the Planning Commission… expects that any option possible to make this intersection more pedestrian-friendly will be pursued.”

Sellin said a half-dozen staffers, including two top transportation officials, have thoroughly vetted the left-turn lane. They published a 64-page memo justifying the turn lane and will study how the grocery store changes traffic before adding any pedestrian mitigation measures.

“There’s a recommendation to not allow any right turns on red at any of the lights in the intersection,” he said. “That’s a movement we’ll take under further consideration. Our primary concern is safety, our secondary concern is operations.”

The left-turn lane is a non-negotiable for the grocer, who has otherwise been “insanely flexible” as the project has changed throughout the public process, according to Insight’s Managing Principal Trent Smith.

“We’ve shrunk their store, changed their ramps, taken away their parking… we changed their loading, we’ve done eight or nine things that took all sorts of reworking and they’ve stuck with us and have been great, reasonable partners throughout,” Smith said.

Insight’s attorney, Andrew Painter, says the unnamed grocer required the left turn based on “decades of experience in urban configurations.” He added that for a decade, the grocer has desired to be in Ballston, which already has a Harris Teeter nearby on N. Glebe Road, a quarter-mile away.

Some Planning Commissioners noted their regret that the project does not do more to provide on-site affordable housing.

“This space here, in the heart of Arlington, in Ballston, where there’s access to transit, and now a grocery store, we have nothing,” Commissioner Devanshi Patel said.

Insight could become the first developer to use a county tool that allows for the construction of more units in exchange for preserving existing committed affordable housing along Columbia Pike.

Through the project, it is preserving 118 units at the Haven Apartments along Columbia Pike, which Insight acquired in January 2017 for $20 million and has since renovated.

Some commissioners criticized the tool for its unintended racial and socio-economic consequences of keeping affordable units sequestered to lower-income neighborhoods of Arlington.

“We’ve missed an opportunity to provide real affordable housing,” Patel said. “I get it, your density was satisfied elsewhere, but elsewhere in a place that’s not as transit rich, not as accessible to Metro. This is a place where we could’ve done better here by making more affordable units.”

In response to opposition from some Ballston neighbors, who said there needs to be more on-siteaffordable units, Insight added a dozen committed affordable units — a two-bedroom apartment for a household earning up to 60% of the area median income and 11 units for renters earning up to 80% of the area median income.

“We’re doing what we can, from a financial feasibility perspective,” Painter said.

Patel said Ballston needs deeper affordability than 60% AMI, and should be looking at setting aside units for people earning up to 30% AMI.

The Planning Commission voted 8-0, with two abstentions, on the overall project. It voted 7-0, with three abstentions on a separate motion specifically related to the transfer of development rights.

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