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Fairmont Fuels Controversy

A new condo complex is adding to tension over new development

Residents of Ballston are fighting plans to add a new 23-story apartment complex to the Arlington skyline. Blueprints for the Fairmont, a project put forth by development company JBG, came under scrutiny at a meeting of the county's site plan review committee Monday night. As members examined the proposal, civic activists said the project is a mistake.

"This whole site plan as it exists is a mistake," said Suzette Hurley, a resident in the Continental apartment complex adjacent to the proposed site and a representative of the Ballston Smart Growth Alliance (BSGA).

Yet some on the committee said the project fits among the high rises of the Ballston area. JBG's site plan calls for the development of 6.21 acres on the Southeast corner of Fairfax Drive and North Vermont Street. The county has already approved 5.57 acres of the plan. The complex, a tower of white and blue glass stacked with balconies, consists of 237 residential units and 9,200 square feet of retail space on its ground level. JBG's original proposal asks the county for permission to build a 26-story tower, but that figure was altered at the start of Monday's meeting.

"It's a change to the building that is very responsive to the concerns we've heard," said Ted Samson, an attorney representing JBG to the committee.

County zoning laws, however, prevent JBG from constructing a building that has more than 23 floors.

"We shouldn't look at this like they have lowered the height on their own," said committee member Peter Fallan. "They cannot build over 23 floors."

Speaking to Samson and JBG executive Ken Finklestein, Fallan added, "You're asking for the maximum you can, plus the bonus, and that's typical for an applicant but you're not giving up bonus density yet."

BALLSTON IS a focal point for development in Arlington. The Continental apartment complex stands at 21 stories. The tower above the Ballston Metro station has 24. Some members of the board said the project is in keeping with the surrounding buildings and its design may bring a new element of style to the neighborhood.

"Ballston needs some relief from everything that's there now," said Terry Savela, who sits on the planning commission.

To residents in the Continental and in the Jefferson apartments, a complex for seniors, the only relief would be to stop the project. Among other problems, Hurley said, traffic in the narrow alleyway that leads both to the Continental's parking lot and to that of the proposed site is going to get worse once the project is complete.

"That 24 feet of road is an extremely narrow piece of road for all of this pedestrian traffic to go through," said Hurley. "If there is one truck or one piece of equipment that is slightly out of line in our alleyways, there's congestion, and traffic for the whole site is severely disrupted."

And for pedestrians, she added, the Fairmont will only make a bad situation worse.

"As it currently exists, people cannot safely traverse from one end of the site to the other," she said. "The base that we are working with is something completely un-traversible."

Part of JBG's site plan asks the county for zoning changes that would give the company permission to construct a taller building than the current policies allow. The BSGA, a group of more than 1,000 residents, issued a position paper challenging JBG's request.

"The committee's final recommendations will set an important precedent for development in Arlington County, said BSGA President Glenn Elliot. "Will the county stick to its long-standing principle of smart, pedestrian-friendly growth? Or will it allow a well-financed developer to create unnecessary congestion, dangerous pedestrian walkways and an eyesore for the Ballston neighborhood?"

The proposed site of the Fairmont is land once owned by the Department of Homeland Security. A five-story building stands there now.

On Wednesday, the Ballston Virginia Square Civic Association also held a meeting with members of the County Board on JBG's plans.