Rosslyn Rising

Rosslyn's skyline is growing ever taller. But its new proposed sector plan focuses on a lot more than the vertical horizon.

Rosslyn wasn’t exactly on the short list when Adiam Berhane started scouting locations for her Italian-style coffee shop, Caffe Aficionado, in 2013.

“I’m a Washingtonian, and we’re phobic about Virginia,” says the daughter of restaurateurs, who admits she was biased. Natives of the District don’t mind going into Maryland, Berhane says, but there’s something about the Potomac River that seems like an insurmountable barrier. So when her broker insisted that she check out the space at 1919 North Lynn St., she initially resisted.

The property that was up for grabs is part of Waterview, a high-end complex that currently includes offices for CEB (the Corporate Executive Board), Deloitte and the language software company Rosetta Stone. Completed in 2008, Waterview is the last building a car passes on its way from Arlington to the Key Bridge and into Georgetown. It’s just the sort of redevelopment that planners hope will revitalize Rosslyn. The towers contain both office space and penthouse-style condo residences, plus street-level retail that encourages pedestrian activity.

“Oh no,” Berhane said to her broker with mock despondency once she finally looked at the space. “This place is perfect.”

Caffe Aficionado opened in October and immediately began drawing weekday customers from nearby offices. The volume of foot traffic that Berhane and her business partner, Clark Donat, saw on Saturdays and Sundays soon convinced them to open on weekends, too. With all the additional high-end residences opening at Turnberry Tower, Waterview and Sedona | Slate, Berhane says the neighborhood is fast becoming the pedestrian village county planners have envisioned.

D.C. denizens who are quick to write off Virginia as inconvenient should give Rosslyn a second look, she says. “It’s so ridiculous. You’re right there. You’re basically an extension of Georgetown. Whoever designed it was a genius.”

PEOPLE DO NOT often say that about Rosslyn, which has suffered its share of image problems over the years. An infamous red-light district at the turn of the 20th century, it was known for its illegal gambling halls, speakeasies and brothels. Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney Crandall Mackey and his temperance police cleaned up the neighborhood’s seedier side in a series of raids in 1904. But for decades after, the area remained home to little more than a sprawl of low-lying lumber yards, single-story retailers, light-industrial buildings and car lots.

 

After World War II, Rosslyn began to grow as the culture and economy of D.C. spilled into the suburbs. The biggest spurt came in the 1960s, when the neighborhood moved to fill a need for federal government office space, says Anthony Fusarelli, Jr., a principal planner for Arlington County who works in Rosslyn. From 1962 to 1965, about a dozen buildings—each 12 to 15 stories—grew out of the county’s new “site plan” process, which allowed developers to build as high as 150 feet, provided their plans included public amenities.

At the time, planners anticipated that 60 percent of Rosslyn’s 28,000 employees would arrive by car, and 30 percent by bus. Only 2 percent were expected to walk to work, according to “Rosslyn: Arlington County’s New Urban Complex,” a planning report from 1965.

As such, county officials concluded that the “channelization” of pedestrians into a system of raised sky bridges and plazas would keep walkers safe while providing drivers with a smoother commute.

In 1981, the iconic, 26-story, aluminum-and-glass twin towers of 1000 and 1100 Wilson Blvd., built by Westfield Realty, established Rosslyn’s skyline.

But by then, the car-centric planning priorities of the ’60s had already left a lasting legacy. Rosslyn became a concrete canyon of wide streets and highways, and a business district that shut down after 5 p.m.

That condition is what county leaders are now working to fix by retrofitting Rosslyn as an urban village where people can get around not only by car, but also on foot, bicycle or public transit.

It’s clear that commuting patterns in the neighborhood have shifted over the last half-century. In 2008, solo drivers made up about 48 percent of Rosslyn commuters, while carpools and mass transit delivered about 47 percent. The remaining 5 percent walked, biked or teleworked, according to a multimodal transit study conducted by the county earlier this year.

Backers of the new “Realize Rosslyn” initiative—an effort involving county planners, developers and citizens—now hope to continue that momentum by finalizing a Rosslyn Sector Plan by the end of 2014. Designed as an umbrella guide for redevelopment, the sector plan sets parameters around certain growth objectives. Among them: to shape Rosslyn’s ongoing transformation into a high-density, mixed-use district; to balance out its downtown area with more housing; and to better connect the spaces between buildings at street level.

The draft plan also seeks to make the neighborhood safer for cyclists and pedestrians with wider sidewalks, new walkways and additional bike lanes. The rough draft, approved in April, is now being edited and negotiated. (The county board will ultimately approve the final version.)

Much of the focus lies on the Rosslyn Coordinated Redevelopment District (the “downtown” part of Rosslyn), where the draft sector plan encourages developers to tear down nondescript, 1960s-era, midrise buildings and replace them with mixed-use skyscrapers with varying building heights and façade materials, giving Rosslyn a more distinctive character. (Buildings can now reach 300 feet as a result of a 1996 zoning change.) Offices, residences and hotels will fill the upper levels of these buildings, while restaurants, stores and other retail will occupy the street-level spaces.

Along North 18th Street, the plan calls for a pedestrian-friendly “Heart of Rosslyn,” a series of parks and plazas that will connect central Rosslyn and the Potomac River to the residential neighborhoods to the west. These street-level pedestrian corridors will replace the much-maligned and outdated skywalks between buildings.

Anticipating the possibility that Rosslyn’s current Metro station could become overtaxed with the addition of the Silver Line, planners have also envisioned a second Metro station—as outlined in a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority planning document—that would run under North Fort Myer Drive, servicing a redirected Blue Line.

 

It would be connected to the current platform via a pedestrian tunnel.

Those aren’t the only ideas on the table. Additional proposals include a streetcar to Georgetown, a boathouse between Key Bridge and Roosevelt Island, and further development of the airspace over Interstate 66.

With its urban bustle, this so-called “Manhattan on the Potomac” is poised for massive redevelopment, according to county officials and businesses that have staked a claim in the concrete. By 2040, planners envision an additional 4.5 million square feet of office space, another 200,000 square feet of retail, 600 more hotel rooms and 1,300 more residences.

Monday Properties, whose roots in the neighborhood date back to the ’60s, is one of those stakeholders. Last October, the company finished the construction of 1812 North Moore St., a 35-story, 390-foot, LEED-Platinum, glass office tower. (LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a green building certification program of the U.S. Green Building Council.) Next up, the developer plans to begin construction in 2017 of another residential and office complex just up the block.

Monday Properties President and Chief Operating Officer Timothy Helmig is quick to paint Rosslyn as prime real estate, touting its proximity to Capitol Hill, K Street, Reagan National Airport and major employers, such as the Pentagon. “When you bring all those ingredients together, that’s why we are so bullish on Rosslyn,” Helmig says, sitting  in a conference room at 1100 North Wilson Blvd.—one of the 10 properties his company owns in Rosslyn. His father-in-law, Stanley Westreich, was a founding partner (along with William Brakefield) of Westfield Realty, the company that developed much of Rosslyn in the ’60s. Westreich’s son Anthony is now chairman of Monday Properties, which took over Westfield’s holdings in 2005.

Mary-Claire Burick, president of the Rosslyn Business Improvement District (BID), echoes Helmig’s positive view. “If you ask just about anyone what’s the best thing in Rosslyn, that’s typically what folks will say: the access, the location. We really are a bridge between D.C. and the rest of Northern Virginia.”

But not everyone is quite so optimistic about Rosslyn’s real estate potential in the short term. The neighborhood has lost some significant businesses in recent years, including EADS North America, which moved to Dulles International Airport; and Northrop Grumman, which abandoned its Rosslyn post for a nondescript office building in Falls Church. Some fear this attrition could continue as Metro’s Silver Line connects downtown Washington to emerging commercial hubs in Tysons Corner and the Dulles Corridor.

Moreover, the federal government’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process has scattered roughly 17,000 area public sector employees to the wind and emptied millions of square feet of commercial space—notably in Crystal City and Rosslyn—leaving office space plentiful and cheap. Locally, BRAC’s economic impact has been equivalent to four military bases closing anywhere else in the country, says Troy Palma, a regional economist with Arlington Economic Development (AED), an arm of the county government.

Commercial vacancy rates confirm that impact. In June, Arlington had a county-wide commercial vacancy rate of about 20 percent, whereas in Rosslyn, the vacancy rate was about 27 percent, with 2.5 million of the neighborhood’s 9.2 million square feet of commercial space empty. (By comparison, Ballston had a commercial vacancy rate of 15.7 percent.) These numbers, collected by the real estate analysis firm CoStar, include dedicated office buildings, as well as those containing a mix of office and retail, Palma says.

Still, Monday Properties’ Helmig is unfazed by the data. The companies that moved out of Arlington looking for midpriced space are the exceptions, not the rule, he contends.

“There are strong indications that confidence has entered back into our commercial office market,” Helmig says, noting that he has seen recent high-end leases across the river in modern D.C. buildings that offer efficient floor plans and energy-efficient systems.

As examples, he cites the recent move of the antitrust law firm Sullivan & Cromwell to 1700 New York Ave. NW, next to the Corcoran Museum, and Boston Properties’ creation of an office building for the law firm Arnold & Porter in NoMa. Compared with D.C., Rosslyn has the added advantage of great views of the nation’s capital, combined with less-restrictive zoning (e.g., allowances for taller buildings) and rents that are about 80 percent of what they would be in the District, according to numbers provided by AED.

 

Still, developers such as Penzance and The JBG Companies are taking a bit more of a wait-and-see position in Rosslyn. Penzance recently chose to renovate, rather than raze, its building at 1500 Wilson Blvd., even though tearing it down would have freed the developer to build a structure almost twice as tall.

Andrew McIntyre, senior vice president for development and construction at Penzance, says his company is holding off on any big moves until it sees how all the new office and residential space in the neighborhood shakes out. “It’s okay to be patient,” he says.

Brian Coulter, a managing partner at JBG (developer of the Sedona | Slate luxury apartments) acknowledges Rosslyn’s many selling points, but notes that “right now, the office market is pretty soft.” That may explain why JBG is building the residential half of its massive Central Place complex first, starting with a 31-story apartment tower and public plaza, both of which should open in the first quarter of 2017. (A twin office tower, to be anchored by the Corporate Executive Board, or CEB, which is relocating from Waterview, is slated for completion in 2018.)

The residential market looks better than the office market in the near term, Coulter says.

Still, he sees many of the incremental changes around town—from new public art to the disappearance of those dated concrete skywalks—as symbolic of a new era for Rosslyn. “People say, ‘I see what it can be now.’ ”

Local resident Corinne Howard shares that excitement. “I think [Rosslyn] is a really, up-and-coming place to live,” she says, while taking a break outside AllSpice Cafe, a deli/caterer on Wilson Boulevard that she frequents with her dog, Sophie. A water dish and dog treats sit just outside the cafe’s door.

“I love the way they keep the public places,” she adds, pointing toward the flowers that fill a nearby pocket park. “Everything is so clean.” She says she’s even heard tourists commenting on the beauty of the neighborhood.

Howard lives in Turnberry Tower, a 26-story luxury condo building in the heart of Rosslyn that offers views of the Potomac and the Washington monuments. She moved there when her husband, a longtime entertainment and travel journalist, grew ill from Parkinson’s disease and had to be relocated to an assisted-living home in McLean.

Their three-bedroom condo in the Watergate complex in D.C. was too big to manage, she says. Moving to Rosslyn allowed her to downsize and made the daily visits to McLean that much easier.

But there is one thing Howard misses about D.C.: the restaurants. Although newcomers like Heavy Seas Alehouse, combined with old standbys such as Café Asia, are fueling a more robust dining scene that keeps Rosslyn alive after 6 p.m., Howard says she wants more fine dining options. She feels there are plenty of fast-food joints and “open-bar” places in Rosslyn—the taverns that serve a younger crowd.

Her wish could soon come true, insofar as restaurants count among the bargaining chips used in site-plan negotiations between developers and the county planning department. As a condition of plan approval, the county may ask for certain amenities in exchange for taller building heights and density allowances. These often include restaurants, along with public art, parks, plazas, bike-share stations, grocery stores, coffee shops and affordable housing.

Monday Properties says it’s planning a high-end, white-tablecloth restaurant, as well as a separate fast-casual restaurant at 1812 North Moore St. At the same time, its site plan for 1401 Wilson Blvd. includes a pedestrian plaza with a bocce court, while its sister building on the same block (1400 Key Blvd.) promises to bring a full-service grocery store. The site will also include the first section of the “Heart of Rosslyn” pedestrian plaza along North 18th Street.

JBG’s Central Place comes with a different set of perks. Once finished, it will include a public plaza at street level and a publicly accessible rooftop observation deck. The county expects about a half-million visitors to the observation deck per year.

But not all public amenities on the drawing board come to fruition. Some end up stalled or sacrificed along the way. This frustrates residents like Jennifer Zeien, president of the North Rosslyn Civic Association, who views the site plan as a contractual obligation between the developer and the community that is all too often broken. She says she’s still waiting for the restaurant that was part of the deal in Turnberry Tower, which opened in 2009. (The developer was relieved of the restaurant requirement when it had a hard time finding a tenant to fill the space; however, it has since secured a high-end Chinese restaurant that’s expected to open in September.)

Monday Properties’ Helmig is sympathetic to Zeien’s point of view, though he stresses that the development process is always a push-pull equation in which market conditions impose certain realities. Sometimes the reality is a good idea that gets delayed or doesn’t materialize for financial reasons.

Other times, the reality is an old building that goes away to free up space for new growth. The latest in Rosslyn is the fated parking garage in which Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward famously held his clandestine meetings with Mark Felt, aka “Deep Throat.” That structure will be torn down to make way for 1401 Wilson Blvd. and 1400 Key Blvd.

So portends the end of an era. And the beginning of another.

G. Stephen Thurston is a longtime journalist in Arlington and the former editor of the Arlington Mercury news website. He has lived in Arlington since 1995 with his wife and, later, children.

 

In the Pipeline

Six new buildings in Rosslyn have been approved and built in recent years. Here’s what’s coming next.

1401 WILSON BLVD. AND 1400 KEY BLVD.
To build this super-block, Monday Properties will tear down the Oakhill Office Building on Wilson Boulevard and its twin building on Key Boulevard to make room for a 24-story, LEED-Platinum office tower with ground-floor retail, and a 28-story, 274-unit LEED-Silver residential tower with a grocery store. A public plaza on the site will connect North Oak and Nash streets along 18th Street. The county’s aim is to create a series of public plazas that connect downtown Rosslyn with neighborhoods to the west and the Potomac River to the east. Monday Properties expects to break ground in 2017.

CENTRAL PLACE
Construction of JBG’s Central Place is under way just above the Metro station, between North Moore and North Lynn streets at Wilson Boulevard. The project plan includes two towers: a 525,000-square-foot office tower and a 377-unit residential tower (under construction now). It also includes a public observation deck and a public plaza, as well as ground-floor retail space. Upon completion, Central Place will be the tallest mixed-use development in the Washington, D.C., area. At press time, the CEB (Corporate Executive Board) announced plans to move its headquarters (and 1,400 employees) from Waterview to Central Place by 2018.

COLONY HOUSE
The former Colony House furniture store on Lee Highway at North Quinn Street will be torn down to make way for an eight-story, 168-room extended-stay hotel. The developer, 1700 Lee Highway LLC, plans a LEED-Gold certified, Art Deco-style hotel with a two-level garage and improvements to nearby sidewalks and bus stops.

ROSSLYN GATEWAY
JBG won approval in 2012 to redevelop a 2.2-acre site at the base of the Key Bridge. Once completed, the project will replace two aging office buildings with three new, interconnected towers: a 25-story LEED-Platinum office building; a 25-story LEED-Silver hotel and residential building with 133 housing units and 148 hotel rooms; and a 20-story LEED-Silver residential tower with 140 units. The three buildings will also have a combined 1 million square feet of ground-floor retail space. The deal also includes funding to redevelop Rosslyn’s Gateway Park across the street.

ROSSLYN PLAZA
Vornado/Charles E. Smith and Gould Property Co. are partners on the 6.5-acre Rosslyn Plaza site, located on the eastern-most edge of the neighborhood between North Kent Street and North Arlington Ridge Road. Though stalled in the site plan process, the county and developers are still working to finalize the complicated plan, says county planner Anthony Fusarelli, Jr. It includes six buildings that, collectively, will offer about 2.5 million square feet of office, residential, hotel and retail space—including dining options in every building. Current plans also call for approximately 2.5 acres of open space, according to the county website. The project would relocate Arlington Ridge Road closer to I-66.


In Defense of Art

ROSSLYN'S ARTISPHERE has generated a lot of attention since it opened in October of 2010. But not always the kind of attention proponents had hoped for.

Though the county-supported gallery, theater and arts venue has received notable artistic acclaim (it was named “Best New Venue” by Washington City Paper and “Best Arts Center” by The Washington Post Express in 2011), it has struggled financially, in spite of being four years into a free, 14-year lease at 1100 Wilson Blvd.

Artisphere's fiscal challenges were apparent early on. In the fall of 2011, its management returned to the county board to request business plan changes that would lower projected revenues from ticket sales and allow the venue to generate additional income by renting out some spaces for parties and other events. Artisphere subsequently received an additional $1.14 million in county funding, bringing its total endowment for its first fiscal year to $2.1 million. But its attendance remained lackluster. In fiscal 2013, the space attracted about 64,000 visitors, well short of the original forecast of 250,000 attendees per year. (Staff conceded at the time of reorganization that the original number was wildly exaggerated.)

Artisphere’s Executive Director José Ortiz says that the budget has since settled and that the venue will be asking for about $2.3 million annually in county funding, going forward. (The entity has been fully funded at a total expenditure of $3.66 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2015, but expects to take in about $1.3 million, which brings the net county support to $2.3 million.)

That figure still gives tax hawks pause. Mark Kelly, who ran for the county board in 2012 as a Republican, says he is not against the Artisphere funding, per se, except that it shows a pattern of poor fiscal planning. “It’s not what they promised,” he says, alluding to the county’s original claim that the project would pay for itself in three years.

“They make promises on the one hand, and the reality turns out to be something different. That’s what gets under people’s skin.”

Kelly says he doesn’t like the upward pressure that budgeting revisions put on county taxes. “In 10 years, that’s $22 million that could be put toward infrastructure, schools or tax relief,” he says.

Cecilia Cassidy, the former director of the Rosslyn Business Improvement District (she retired in August 2013) takes a different view. She sees Artisphere’s cost as a modest sum when compared with other county funding priorities. Rosslyn does not have its own rec center, she points out, although its taxes help fund rec centers in other parts of the county.

While Artisphere is not mentioned by name in the draft Rosslyn Sector Plan, Cassidy feels its role is implicit. “When you say that you want ‘to keep the neighborhood a lively place 18 hours a day, seven days a week,’ ” she says, reading from the plan document, “that’s the Artisphere, Spectrum Theatre [a part of Artisphere] and other music that the BID puts on.”

Ortiz defends the arts venue as a critical puzzle piece in what urban design experts refer to as the “third place concept.” People live in one place and work in another. The “third place” is where they go to socialize, relax and feel comfortable.

Karen Vasquez, director of cultural affairs for Arlington County, believes the county is now committed to Artisphere for the foreseeable future, though she says county officials realize that maintaining an arts venture requires a different funding outlook, with money drawn equally from public tax revenue; tickets, rentals and other receipts; and corporate and foundation donations.

“If you want a cultural center, an arts center in your community, you need some kind of public support,” she says.

This recognition has given rise to the Arlington Foundation for Arts and Innovation (AFAI), a nonprofit formed by Peter Greenwald, chairman of the Rosslyn BID, and Scott Laughlin of the Rosslyn-based advertising agency LMO Advertising. AFAI will serve a function similar to “Friends of Arlington Library,” which acts as a fundraising and outreach arm beyond the county structure.

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