New Heights for Arlington Skyline

New Heights for Arlington Skyline

Approved Rosslyn Sector Plan comes with new density and building height regulations.

Rosslyn Skyline from the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

Rosslyn Skyline from the Francis Scott Key Bridge. Photo by Vernon Miles.

Controversy and discussion surrounding plans for Rosslyn was so intense, the meetings had to be divided into two five-hour sessions. The County Board’s July 21 recessed meeting primarily focused on the Western Rosslyn Area Plan, while the July 22 meeting discussed exclusively the Rosslyn Sector Plan. While public concerns regarding the Western Rosslyn Area Plan largely centered around the addition of a fire station in place of park land, it was the Rosslyn Sector Plan discussion that could have the largest visual impact on the county.

Discussion on the Rosslyn Sector Plan primarily centered around height and density issues. The Rosslyn Sector Plan permits a floor area ratio (FAR, a ratio measuring density) of 3.8 for commercial office and hotels, while residential properties can have up to a 4.8 FAR with special exceptions. However, the county is currently allowed to permit up to 10 FAR if a site is identified as having important commercial benefits. While the Rosslyn Sector Plan does not change the existing commercial, hotel, or residential FARs, it does recommend the County Board be able to raise density above 10 FAR if the proposed building is consistent with the economic revitalization aims of the Rosslyn Sector Plan. However, language was later added to the document that emphasized that any application requesting a density increase above 10 FAR would face exceptional scrutiny.

The plan’s building height guidelines are described as a “Peaks and Valleys” approach. Some buildings in the area have restrictions to either above or below 300 feet to encourage a diverse skyline. As with density, the plan allows greater flexibility for building height.

“The guidelines are not regulations and should be considered as flexible as long as the intent outlined … is achieved,” read the Rosslyn Sector Plan’s height restrictions guidelines. “In the spirit of affording maximum creativity, projects that do not exactly follow the letter of every provision in the design guidelines, but nonetheless demonstrate an alternative approach that achieves the intent of the plan, should be recognized as a valid alternative.”

In general, however, the plan notes that recommended building heights should be followed unless the applicant can present compelling reasons to leverage additional building height.

Chris Forinash, chair of the Arlington Planning Commission, and Commission Member Brian Harner both attended the meeting and expressed concerns laid out by the Planning Commission.

Harner said the commission approved of the “Peaks and Valleys” approach but with specification that building height limitations protect good view opportunities for top floor residents of nearby buildings and that there is ample daylight access in the streets and public spaces in the surrounding buildings.

A public observation deck is set to be located in the Central Place office tower, which will offer views of downtown Washington D.C. as well as Arlington Cemetery, Georgetown, and the National Cathedral. However, Harner lamented that the “valleys” in the height restriction plan didn’t protect westward views of Arlington from the top of the observation deck.

“If Arlington residents got to the top of the observation deck and looked at the broad face of an adjacent building without a view of their own community, what are we saying about our valuing of our own community?” said Harner.

The Ballston and Rosslyn Business Improvement Districts both wrote letters to the County Board expressing concerns that the height and density restrictions would stifle economic growth. The Arlington Chamber of Commerce concurred, expressing concerns about density and height maximums.

“It is our firm belief that the plan, as currently crafted, will lead to stagnation rather than implementation,” wrote Chamber of Commerce Chair Kevin Shooshan and President and CEO Kate Roche on behalf of the chamber.

Sally Duran, chair of Arlington’s Economic Development Commission, said that the plan was overly prescriptive and the height restrictions would diminish the economic viability of the sector.

The North Rosslyn Civic Association, however, wrote to the board expressing a belief that the density and height restrictions were too loose. In its letter to the board, the North Rosslyn Civic Association said the peaks and valleys concept was poorly defined and its benefits towards enlivening the skyline were vague.

Chair Mary Hynes emphasized that the board will exercise discretion in approving buildings that would exceed the height limitations or would inhibit views identified by the staff as scenic, which does not include western-facing views of Arlington.

“Do you really think the tops are going to look like this?” Hynes said in reference to a hypothetical view of the Potomac with a penthouse suite in the way. “We have guidelines about, when you get up this high, it should be interesting or luminous. You should be able to look through it. Peaks and valleys goes with interesting tops to make a unique skyline. My view is, we’re looking at the absolute worst possibility here. If any board approved this, they ought to be shot.”

“[If] this becomes terribly burdensome and things go terribly awry, this board member will certainly be willing to revisit it,” said County Board Member Libby Garvey regarding increased height and density allowances, “but I think we need to give this a try first.”

The Rosslyn Sector Plan is set to guide the area over a 25-year timespan. The Rosslyn Sector Plan also outlines major transportation changes in the area, including converting Lynn Street, Fort Myer Drive, and Kent Street into two lane roads. This will also remove the Fort Myer Drive underpass on Wilson Boulevard. The 18th Street Corridor will extend east, from N. Quinn Street to Arlington Ridge Road, and will include extensive bicycle and pedestrian access. Additional bicycle and pedestrian access is planned to cross over I-66 and the George Washington Memorial Parkway to connect Rosslyn to the Mount Vernon Trail and Theodore Roosevelt Island. Several improvements are planned for the Rosslyn Metro Station, including a redesigned entrance fully open to Fort Myer Drive and Moore Street.

The Rosslyn Sector Plan was approved by the County Board in a unanimous vote.