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Developers Pull Out of North Tract Deal

Design work halted on athletic facility and soccer field complex north of Crystal City.

A developer has terminated a land swap agreement with Arlington County, halting design work for an athletic and aquatic facility overlooking the Potomac River just north of Crystal City.

Monument Realty reneged last week on a preliminary deal that would have provided the county with land and funding necessary to proceed with building athletic fields and a recreation center on the coveted North Tract property.

County officials insist that their vision for North Tract — slated to include an aquatic and fitness center, four synthetic grass athletic fields, a public space for concerts, and a network of sidewalks and bike paths — is not jeopardized by Monument Realty’s decision to spurn the land exchange.

"This is not going to derail the project, just slow it down," said Tobin Smith, chair of the North Tract citizen task force.

AS PART OF the proposed swap, the county government was to receive a seven-acre site on the north end of North Tract and $25 million to help defray the costs of building the new sports facilities. In return, Monument Realty was to acquire a five-acre plot of land on the south end of the site and additional density for a large condo building.

The recent downturn in the residential real estate market has made the deal no longer financially feasible for the company.

"The market has changed substantially, and the terms of the agreement no longer made sense," said Russell Hines, Monument Realty’s executive vice president.

Monument Realty is now "actively pursuing" an office building project on the site it owns, which was originally approved by the County Board in the mid-1990s, Hines said.

Nonetheless, officials remain optimistic that an accord can be reached, though it is likely that the county will receive less than the $25 million originally agreed upon.

"The county is committed to acquiring the properties that we set out to get in the first place," said County Board Vice Chairman Paul Ferguson.

If the two parties cannot reach a consensus on the terms of a land swap, the county will seek to purchase the seven-acre site outright from Monument Realty, said Hank Leavitt, assistant to the director of the community planning and housing division. The county would then look to sell its five-acre property north of Crystal City to a different developer, officials said.

Invoking eminent domain is "another tool" the county possesses to acquire the property, said Eric Beach, the North Tract project manager.

Monument Realty officials said they were willing to continue negotiations but are preparing documents for building permits for the site.

"If the county were to give us an offer that made sense, we would sell," Hines said. "But we’re focused on advancing our office project right now."

In the meantime, design and architectural design work has been halted on the North Tract project, the largest capital park undertaking in Arlington’s history. "We’re holding off," Smith said. "It’s not sensible to move forward until details are clearer how this is going to be resolved."

Some residents have wondered whether the county should have spent money designing the project before they had acquired the land on which the recreational facility is to be built upon.

"The county spent a whole bunch of design money for a property it didn’t own, and now seemingly is having trouble trying to buy," said Wayne Kubicki, a former member of Arlington’s fiscal affairs advisory committee.

DUE TO THE paucity of land available for public use, the North Tract property is the only spot in Arlington that can support a large-scale aquatic center and athletic fields. County officials envision the park as an attractive "gateway" to Arlington, with views of Washington’s monuments, and as a gathering place for the community.

The North Tract facilities will enable the county to host premier athletic competitions and provide south Arlington with a venue for community events. It is also a key element of the county’s efforts to transform Crystal City into a more vibrant neighborhood.

North Tract "will be a great addition to the county," Ferguson said. "It will provide recreational opportunities and make Crystal City a more desirable place to move to."

The first phase of construction was scheduled to begin in the summer of 2008, but that may have to be pushed back depending on whether or not the county completes the land swap with Monument Realty, officials said.

This segment of the project — expected to take two years to complete — will include the opening of the aquatic complex and building of two soccer fields, with a price tag of $75 million.

In 2004, Arlington voters approved a $50 million bond to finance the project, and Monument was expected to contribute the other $25 million needed to finish the first phase of construction.

The original price tag was only $50 million, but escalating construction costs and a redesign of the project pushed it higher, said Beach, the North Tract project manager for the county.

The expense and timing of the second phase of construction — the two remaining athletic fields and indoor courts in the athletic facility — are still to be determined.

In February, officials estimated it might cost an additional $61 million to complete their vision of the site. But Beach said there are too many outstanding variables to name a price right now.

The county government is exploring a mixture of sponsorships and public-private partnerships to raise the funding to finish North Tract. It is unlikely the county would ask the public to approve another bond, Beach said.

The County Board "is going to have to have a conversation to determine where the funds will come from," Beach added.

Opposition to the project has been growing in the county because of its hefty price tag. Mike McMenamin, Republican candidate for County Board, has called for the project to be suspended and for the money to be go towards public works and transportation projects.

"I’m not against the project, it’s just in our best interest to delay it at this time," McMenamin. "Lets redirect some of those funds to where they are supposed to be — the neighborhoods."