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Changing Arlington’s Streetscape

A state-funded commission is now studying the potential impact of new federal standards for defense and security agencies.

This is the third in a series of articles on the possible repercussions if new proposed federal standards for buildings housing federal defense and security agencies are enacted.

<bt>Arlington's streetscape could see some dramatic changes in the coming year, brought on by a new set of Defense Department security regulations that are threatening the county's economic future.

"This would have a profound effect on the office development Arlington and the region have tried to build up," said Jim Van Zee, a researcher with the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, a state-funded organization composed of regional leaders, which is now engaged in a study on the potential impact of the new regulations.

An internal memo authored by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and shared with county legislators, according to County Board member Barbara Favola, states the new standards will soon be enacted in the wake of growing security concerns after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in 2001. The heightened regulations, according to Favola, signal a shift in the type of buildings defense agencies will be required to inhabit, taking them out of the high-rise office buildings scattered throughout Arlington and putting them behind the walls of campus-like facilities.

"Very few of the buildings we have in Northern Virginia under federal lease would meet these standards," Van Zee said.

FEDERAL LEASES account for 18.7 million square feet of office space, just under half of the total office space in Arlington, according to county statistics. The Defense Intelligence Agency, one county report states, is the largest single tenant in Clarendon. The new regulations are detailed in a Defense Department report titled "Unified Facilities Criteria: DOD Minimum Anti-Terrorism Standards for Buildings." It includes standards that would require buildings to be fitted with hardened, blast-resistant concrete to mitigate damage if they were hit with a terrorist bomb. It also calls for added glazing on windows and for raising the height of external vents to minimize the risk of chemical or biological attacks. But what has most local officials concerned, Van Zee said, is "setback," a standard that would require defense agencies to be housed in buildings between 82 and 142 feet from city streets or any other nearby point where an explosive device could be placed. Van Zee said the commission is now exploring a compromise.

"We're looking at trying to have the standards more goal-oriented rather than the Defense Department taking a prescriptive approach," said Van Zee. "Let's say you have these standards and you accomplish eight of them without having the setback, you basically achieve your goal. But, they could just tell us that these are the standards and they have to be met."

One route local officials are exploring, he added, is the creation of "secured blocks," by combining several city blocks into one walled compound, where traffic coming and going can be closely monitored. The idea has gotten some recognition from Defense Department officials.

"They're intrigued by that idea, but we haven't fully determined how it would work," Van Zee said. "For the government, the alternative is that you pack up and go somewhere else and build these secure campus fortresses."

SECURITY CONCERNS for federal buildings and staff inside them, Van Zee said, began after the devastating bomb blast that ripped apart a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and the first bombing attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. Mounting security questions after the 9-11 terrorist attacks have only increased pressure on the Defense Department.

"A significant amount of the defense establishment is in Virginia," Van Zee said. "Whole businesses are built to service it. They would devastate an employment center you've worked to build up over the past 20 to 30 years."

The first phase of the commission's study explores the economic impact of these changes. If local governments fail to convince the Defense Department, Van Zee said, the economic loss to Northern Virginia would be significant. Arlington, he added, would be the county most seriously hurt. About 50,000 federal defense employees either live in Arlington or travel to it each day to work. Outside of the Pentagon — the largest office complex in the world, according to spokesman Gerald Flood — those staff members also work at the DIA's building, the headquarters for the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) and many others. Losing these agencies, he said, could also cause government contractors to go elsewhere, following their federal customers. Some, however, may remain.

"We have no intentions of moving anywhere," said Jared Adams, a spokesman for Systems Applied International Corporation (SAIC), which has contracts with several defense agencies. "Our offices are so spread out in Arlington and the rest of the area that we feel we've got a deep enough footprint and that we'll be able to service our clients."

Yet Van Zee said the ripple effect of these standards changes could be immeasurable.

"Those people go to grocery stores, drug stores and retail shops," Van Zee said. "They are a large factor in the economy. Theoretically, it (standard changes) could even affect the residential market."

According to the Pentagon's report, the new security regulations will be enacted Oct. 1, 2005.