The county is closer to completing its long-held goal of creating a western entrance to the Ballston Metro station, after the County Board narrowly approved a controversial high-rise building in return for the developer’s assistance in constructing the new Metro portal.
The County Board voted 3-2 in favor of the Fairmont project, a 23-story condominium building with ground-floor retail, to be located on the corner of North Fairfax Drive and North Vermont Street. The building is scheduled to open in early 2009, completing the development of the Arlington Gateway site, which includes two office buildings, a residential high-rise and a hotel.
In exchange for an extra 80,000 square feet of space, the JBG Company agreed to pay nearly $11 million toward the construction of the underground passageway for the western entrance to the Metro. As part of the Arlington Gateway site plan, JBG has already built an escalator wellway in the ground floor of one of its new office buildings.
For a board that normally has a unified vision of county land-use policies, there were sharp divisions over whether the developer’s contribution toward the Metro construction justified the increased density.
Board member Paul Ferguson, who voted against the project, labeled the granting of additional density a “giveaway,” while County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman called it “one of the best deals the county has ever gotten, in terms of quality of benefits for the community.”
As the population of Ballston grows, county officials have sought to construct a second Metro entrance to increase the number of people who can use public transportation.
“Getting the western entrance is a very significant public objective,” Zimmerman said. “It will extend the reach of Metro to neighborhoods to the west, will make more people transit users and will bring down the number of car users.”
The total estimated cost of the project is between $35 and $50 million, of which the county has secured almost $10 million. While JBG is now responsible for more than half of the underground passageway, the county will have to construct the remaining sections and build a mezzanine, train room and escalators for the western entrance. County officials said they are still seeking revenue sources for the remaining costs.
Besides the initial $11 million the county saves by agreeing to the deal with JBG, having the work done at the same time as the Fairmont is being built will reduce the project’s overall costs, county officials said.
“We have to come up with this funding one way or the other,” Zimmerman said. “By opening up this hole once, we save millions of dollars and years of work.”
THE LARGE SIZE of the Fairmont building, along with safety and traffic concerns, led to an intial outcry of opposition against the project from neighbors, even producing a new citizen activist organization.
Though JBG was ultimately able to satisfy the concerns of many nearby residents by altering the location of the building’s garage and changing the traffic flow in alleyways, many who attended the board meeting questioned why the county had not extracted greater benefits.
“The county is giving JBG extra density to build an unnecessarily large building, and for what?” asked Mike Baker, a resident of the adjacent Continental condominium building. “A tunnel to nowhere?”
Not every Ballston resident objected to the size of the Fairmont. Jerry Smith, also a resident of the Continental, approved of the project because it would “expand Metro accessibility and increase our property value.”
Ferguson opposed the project on the grounds that funding for the Metro was not a sufficient reason to grant JBG four times the square feet it was originally allowed.
“At the end of the day we could have gotten more in public benefits,” he said. “This may cause us to revise the way we evaluate these things. We don’t need to incentivize to this level.”
Board member Walter Tejada voted against the proposal because there was no developer contribution toward affordable housing. He questioned how his fellow board members could approve granting so much increased density to a project without the county receiving any affordable units, or cash contributions to a housing fund, in return.
“I’m disappointed … there should have been other components here toward affordable housing,” Tejada said.
The vote on the Fairmont project also spurred a vigorous debate over the larger issue of community benefits the county requests in exchange for providing density beyond the existing zoning rules.
A decade ago and more, Arlington was in such dire need for new development that the County Board often acquiesced to developer demands for higher density.
Now that Arlington’s economy is thriving and developers are flocking to the county, it is time for board members to reexamine the size of the community benefits package they require as part of the site plan process, said Patrick Geoffery, who represented the NRECA building at last week’s board meeting.
“You need to re-look at your policies because you are leaving public benefits on the table,” Geoffery said.
Though he called Metro funding an “appropriate” exchange for the Fairmont’s increased density, Zimmerman agreed that it was time for the County Board to reassess parts of the site plan review process.
“Twenty-five years ago this made sense,” Zimmerman said. “But we’re at the point where some measures aren’t right anymore.”