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ArlingtonPike project could pit preservationists, transit boosters

Pike project could pit preservationists, transit boosters

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The planned redevelopment of a key Columbia Pike parcel could end up becoming a battle between preservationists and public-transportationists, with Arlington County Board members in between.

At issue is to how to deal with the two-story, Art Deco building that has sat for generations on the corner of Columbia Pike and South Walter Reed Drive, and is set to be redeveloped into a seven-story mixed-use building with 84 residential units, 7,500 square feet of retail and about 90 garage spaces.

The building (whose physical address is 2801 Columbia Pike) may be somewhat unprepossessing, but it is one of a diminishing number of older and moderately iconic properties that have yet to fall to redevelopment along portions of the Pike. As such, the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) has a role to play in the project’s future.

Under current, still tentative proposals, the façade of the building would be dismantled, stored away and then re-installed after the new development on the site rises.

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Keeping the façade “is kind of better than nothing, I suppose,” said HALRB board member Joan Lawrence, who went on to blast the county government’s commitment, or lack thereof, to finding a way to retain “one of the few historic structures left on Columbia Pike.”

This represents “yet another instance” in which the county government does not prioritize preservation but serves up a fig leaf like original-frontage retention to placate those wishing to preserve the county’s disappearing architectural heritage, Lawrence said.

“We’ve been down this road before,” she said, pronouncing the situation “a travesty.”

Among the additional reasons for Lawrence’s ire: A proposal from the county’s Department of Environmental Services, or DES, asking the developer to move back the historic façade, once it is re-installed, about 30 inches from its current location 10 feet from the road’s edge, in order to accommodate a larger transit station (those things formerly known as bus stops) at the site.

“I’m outraged that there is no sensitivity” on the part of DES to the historic nature of the property, Lawrence said. “Transit’s important but there are other places to put transit.”

HALRB chairman Richard Woodruff, earlier in the meeting, posed the query, “Why we are moving an historic building to accommodate a bus shelter?” Even after staff worked through its explanations, Woodruff pronounced himself “frankly confused about what the plan is.” (He was not alone.)

HALRB comments that historic preservation was being subjugated to transit needs drew some brushback from staff, who said that the stop drew about 600 people a day and was a key connecting point for riders. Those people needed a place to congregate as they waited, staff said.

There also are suggestions that the sidewalks adjacent to Columbia Pike at that location be increased about 3.5 inches to 9.5 inches in height, so they would be flush with the entry points of Metrobuses plying the route.
As to the design of the new building itself, there were cautiously some positive reviews.

“I do approve of the direction this is moving,” HALRB member Gerald Laporte said of the project’s trajectory, although he declared that the design was “still too vertical” for his taste.

The HALRB meeting was just one of many the project is sure to endure as it wends its way toward the County Board, which will have the final say. The historic-affairs body will get at least two more cracks at it during the process.

The parcel in question sits across South Walter Reed Drive from the Arlington Cinema-n-Drafthouse; both have stood watch over the decades, first as Columbia Pike growth stagnated and then accelerated in anticipation of a streetcar line’s arrival in the first decade of the 21st century.

In 2014, County Board members nixed the streetcar proposal over concerns about cost and community opposition. But growth in the corridor has continued largely unabated.

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