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New Home for Urgent Care Center

Virginia Hospital Center’s decision to move medical facility out of Pentagon City draws ire of County Board chairman.

Virginia Hospital Center has found a new home in south Arlington for its urgent care center, but the Arlington County Board chairman and some residents are furious that the medical facility did not relocate to another site in Pentagon City.

Hospital officials announced last week that for nearly $3 million they had purchased property on the complex of Northern Virginia Community Hospital on South Carlin Springs Road, and would open the urgent care center in its new building on Dec. 15. In June, Northern Virginia Community Hospital closed down its in-patient facility and on Nov. 1 shuttered its emergency room.

The hours of the urgent care facility will increase from 12 to 24 a day, and Virginia Hospital Center is looking to rent out additional space in the building to Arlington nonprofit organizations at below-market prices. Northern Virginia

Hospital officials said they were thrilled to land a new location for the center, whose lease on South Fern Street in Pentagon City was due to expire at the end of the month. The hospital has been searching frantically for space since the owners of their current building, Pentagon Plaza, Inc., decided more than a year ago to redevelop the site into an apartment building. The company had already granted Virginia Hospital Center two extensions on its lease.

"We are excited we can continue the urgent care center in a location that is even more centrally-located and more accessible to more segments of the Arlington community," said Jim Cole, Virginia Hospital Center’s president and CEO. "We are really delighted that we have such a great facility."

The urgent care center does not handle emergency situations or patients with serious illness, but residents can use the facility when they injure themselves or get sick.

More Arlington residents will be able to access the new facility — located in western Arlington just south of Route 50 and close to Route 7 — than the old one, which was tucked away among the high-rises of Pentagon City, hospital officials said.

"It will serve a greater portion of the county," Cole added.

BUT THE DECISION to relocate far from Pentagon City has sparked controversy, with County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman calling the move a "loss" for Arlington.

The source of Zimmerman’s ire is the disputed details of an agreement the hospital made with the county in 2000 when it sought to expand its main campus in North Arlington. In return for the right to add to its main building, Virginia Hospital Center consented to open a medical center in the Pentagon City neighborhood — which a year earlier had lost its hospital.

Zimmerman contends that the hospital is obliged to find new space for the facility in the surrounding neighborhood. By moving out to the Arlington-Fairfax border, the hospital is shirking its commitment, he said.

"This is an act of bad faith on the part of Virginia Hospital Center," Zimmerman said. "It seems to me this is inconsistent with the whole intention of their agreement with the county."

Not surprisingly, hospital officials retort that they have fulfilled the terms of their agreement, arguing that they are only obligated to keep the center in south Arlington, which the new location is.

"We are quite confident from a legal and operating view point that we have satisfied the preceding site plan requirement," Cole said.

The hospital was hoping to secure new space for the urgent care center in Pentagon City, but was unable to find cheap enough rent in the booming district. The hospital is a nonprofit organization and barely breaks even on the urgent care center, officials said.

The center is currently located in a former warehouse and the owners charge the hospital below-market rent. The hospital is paying $11 per square-foot for the space, while the lowest rent they could find elsewhere in Pentagon City was more than $30 a square-foot, Cole said.

Pentagon Plaza proposed moving the center into a new, 5-story building nearby, and was willing to provide temporary trailers, but the deal collapsed after the company asked the county for greater density in exchange.

"Finding [an affordable site] right in that neighborhood proved pretty much impossible," Cole said.

OTHER COUNTY OFFICIALS, however, said the hospital did not breach its agreement by moving the center out of Pentagon City.

County Board member Barbara Favola said the new location is "a great idea," and that it was her understanding that the prior agreement had "no geographic specification, just a community preference to have it close-by."

Favola added that it is unrealistic to expect a nonprofit like Virginia Hospital Center to find reasonable rent in Pentagon City. Instead, the hospital should concentrate on using its money to improve care for county residents, she said.

Residents in central and western Arlington will be pleased to have a medical provider to partially replace the departing Northern Virginia Community Hospital, which is planning to move to Loudoun County. Pentagon City residents, however, said they are dismayed that the urgent care center is leaving their neighborhood, and worry that there are now no medical facilities near by.

"It is so far away that it is no longer convenient and no longer a community resource," said Cheryl Mendonsa, president of the Aurora Highlands Civic Association.

Besides being of critical importance to the surrounding neighborhoods, the center was heavily used by tourists and business travelers staying in Pentagon City and Crystal City hotels, and construction workers who may have been injured on the job, Mendonsa said.

Zimmerman echoed Mendonsa’s concerns that the loss of the center will be detrimental to Pentagon City.

"We now have a whole part of our county with a lot of people, businesses and shoppers and no urgent care services," he said.