A revised county government plan that will guide the future of development in Clarendon met resistance from Arlington residents last week, who said its message is ambiguous and may be too restrictive.
Government officials unveiled the 2005 Clarendon Sector Plan at a community forum last Tuesday, and said the new plan would provide predictability for how development will proceed in the area. Those in attendance said they were pleased with many of the proposed streetscape projects, but did not understand the larger vision of the plan and hoped officials would make clarifications before bringing it before the county board.
“Everybody has to be able to read this document and draw the same conclusions,” said Melissa Bondi, president of the Lyon Park Civic Association. “But it is apparent to me that different knowledgeable people had different understandings of what it says.”
The Sector Plan provides a framework for development over the next 15 to 20 years in Clarendon and seeks to balance preserving the unique, historic character of the neighborhood with the county’s desire to attract more mixed-use development. The new plan is scheduled to come before the board in December, and, if approved, will supersede the original 1984 Sector Plan.
“What we’re looking at is not just more density, new building and preserving historic ones, but creating a dynamic community that is as much a village as an urban place can be,” said Carrie Johnson, a member of the citizen-advisory Planning Commission.
IN DECEMBER 2002 the county initiated a review of the existing sector plan and established a community Task Force to guide the government staff. An initial draft was presented to the public December 2004.
The major changes from the first draft include more clarity on how land-use projects will evolve, caps on building heights near neighborhoods and greater density incentives, including ones to encourage the preservation of historic store frontages, said Jennifer Smith, a sector plan coordinator for Arlington County.
The plan seeks to cluster medium-density mixed-use development around the Clarendon Metro station to provide a balance of residential, shopping and office buildings. It allows for lower-density buildings closer to neighborhoods and provides incentives to retain independently-owned businesses.
“It’s important to maintain local retailers who have been the backbone of the community for a long time,” Smith told the approximately 50 residents who attended the forum last Tuesday.
The Central Park area will be redesigned with more space for public gatherings and the Washington-Wilson-Clarendon intersection will be revamped to better align traffic and shorten pedestrian crossing distances.
One of the plan’s goals is to improve the pedestrian access between Clarendon and Virginia Square, Smith said. On the west end of the intersection the county hopes to build a park with an enclosed market pavilion. Washington Boulevard, 13th Street and 10th Street will also undergo significant changes if the plan is approved as is.
MANY IN THE AUDIENCE were vocal in their assessment that the plan was too prescriptive and could potentially stifle future development initiatives.
“There’s very little room for anyone in the future to have a better idea,” Johnson said. “The big flexibility that has been useful in east Clarendon” does not exist in the new document.
“I’m committed to the sector plan but it’s so rigid we may be shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Terry Savela, another member of the Planning Commission.
Others said the prescriptive nature of the plan was necessary to prohibit excessive development.
“The sector plan is the only thing the community can use to stop a project they believe is bad,” said Peter Owen, chairman of the Transportation Committee.
The county board always has the ability to grant exceptions to any sector plan rule as it so chooses.
"Even with a very restrictive sector plan, if some developer comes in with a golden palace of perfection, the board will still have the power to
ignore the plan and approve [the project],” Owen said.
The plan requires building projects on specific sites to be a mix of commercial, residential and retail, with at least 20 percent of the total floor area devoted to commercial uses.
Developers at the forum said that would be difficult to achieve in smaller buildings because commercial and residential spaces require separate lobbies, elevator banks and heating and electrical services.
“The imposition of a specific percentage for commercial use is more difficult to support physically and financially,” said Frank Poli, vice president of Keating Partners.
Other developers said they would be hesitant to go through with a project that requires a set percentage of commercial floor space. Jonathan C. Kinney, an Arlington attorney, said the county’s requirement was “inefficient” and suggested the 20 percent mandate be on a block-wide basis rather than in each building.
GENE ROBERTS said he was disappointed the proposal did not include space for above ground parking facilities.
“Most people who come to walk around in this ‘urban village’ arrive in automobiles,” said Roberts, who owns several properties in Clarendon. “We’ve got to have a place for them to park or they aren’t going to come.”
Ritch Viola, Arlington County planning supervisor, said the 700 public parking spaces in Clarendon was sufficient, but admitted the county needed to do a better job publicizing where available spaces were located.
Many of those at the forum said they were unsure what the county hopes to achieve in Clarendon, even though they read the hefty report multiple times. “There’s a great deal of confusion on what the sector plan will mean and what it specifically delivers,” said Erik Gutshall, past president of the Lyon Park Civic Association. “Will this hold up in the real world?”
The plan is scheduled to come before the Planning Commission in November, which will issue a recommendation, and then will be discussed at the December county board meeting.
Clarendon residents said they were angry that they will not have more direct input into the final draft, besides voicing their concerns at the two public forums last week. Owen compared the situation to when a bill comes before the House of Representatives minutes before a midnight voting deadline.
The county staff will analyze the suggestions and comments from the forums before taking it to the Planning Commission, Smith said.
Before the meeting began, county board member Barbara Favola urged the residents to come to a compromise on the proposal.
“We have been talking about this for too long,” she said. “There’s enormous pressure from the development community ... and at some point we have to tie this up.”
But county officials hinted that the process might still have a ways to go.
“We will continue to look into it,” Smith said. “And we may have to re-group.”