Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Whither Rosslyn?

The “gateway” to Arlington has long suffered an identity crisis for its hodgepodge of glass towers, the Iwo Jima Memorial, artsy eccentricities and parks foreboding to pedestrians.

In July, the county board, after years of community and business input, adopted a “transformational” sector plan called “Realize Rosslyn.” Its public-private collaboration promises “a vibrant place to live, work and play,” new streets, superior architecture built around skyline views, plus new open spaces and riverfront access.

Few have taken Rosslyn’s travails to heart more than Cecilia Cassidy, the now-departed executive director of the Rosslyn Business Improvement District. She recently told me of the trust deficit she perceives between developers and county planners—and her bitterness over the county’s decision to pull the plug on Artisphere.

Modern-day Rosslyn is far from its century-old reputation as a hub for pawn shops, brothels and a Cherry Smash bottling plant. Though I often admire its corporate-logo-bedecked skyline from across the Potomac, the near-constant construction at the Metro stop and high-rises that may sit empty hardly makes it an ideal place for a stroll.

There’s charm in its oddities—outdoor movies and concerts within eyesight of traffic, the Dark Star Park with its concrete globes casting shadows to honor Rosslyn’s founding. No other community boasts a Bridge to Nowhere, whose iterations over decades to connect labyrinthine streets or steer Newseum visitors to a memorial embody indecision.

Cassidy, now a writer, watched Realize Rosslyn draw from what the BID and its sister group Rosslyn Renaissance advocated for years. “We saw all the development getting out in front of what was prescribed in the 1992 plan,” she says. “We’d been clamoring for the Rosslyn Sector plan to be updated, but Crystal City and Columbia Pike came ahead of it, and the planning staff didn’t have the capacity.”

She approves of the new plan’s provision to convert Fort Myer Drive and Lynn Street from one-way streets to two-way and fill in a tunnel under Wilson Blvd. “Rosslyn has unparalleled views of the nation’s capital, so we had negotiated a formal observation deck on the Central Place project planned by The JBG Companies, and this plan protects that view,” she said. “We also worked with the Arlington Boathouse Coalition for a connection to the river. This plan calls for a pedestrian link over the GW Parkway at Rosslyn Plaza.”

Some details were threatened by antagonism between the development community and the commissions that oversee development. “There has to be a partnership, and none of this will come to fruition unless developers develop,” she says, noting that tax payments from Rosslyn comprise 20 percent of county’s revenues.

Cassidy turns thumbs-down on the termination of subsidies to Artisphere, the edgy arts and theater venue that closed June 30. Artisphere had been the primary community benefit of Monday Properties’ Moore Street high-rise. “I don’t think the public understands the complications of negotiating legal details of how community benefits were drawn up,” she said. “It takes political will of elected officials not to bow to criticism of a vocal few, and to provide the community around Washington with the creative environment the county wanted,” she said. “Artisphere attracted thousands of arts lovers to cross Key Bridge to come to Arlington.” The doomed dome was not simply an “amenity, but a necessary part of a vibrant sophisticated environment.”

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Ninety percent of county board votes are unanimous, a certain member of that board once told me. Hence my pleasure in noting that the ambitious affordable housing master plan plan—a three-year effort that generated its share of community acrimony—was approvedSaturday 5-0.

Critics had taken out ads and complained at public forums that the plan lacked specifics and funding while risking overextending the welcome mat for low-income users of social services. But the plan will provide long-term guidance for any number of future board decisions to boost the housing supply, ensure access to units for diverse population and encourage siting in all parts of the county.

For this board, the unanimity is a notable change from recent votes on major divisive issues. Yes, I mean the streetcar.

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