Monday, August 21, 2000

Call it another case of art imitating politics in Washington.

The producers of the NBC television series “The West Wing” recently asked the developer razing the old Magazine Building in Rosslyn to halt the demolition for a few hours because the noise was disrupting the filming of the show’s season finale in nearby Freedom Park.

For years, some real-life federal officials have also been trying to halt development in Rosslyn, which sits across from the District on the edge of the Potomac River in Arlington County.

The feds have complained that Rosslyn’s tall buildings spoil the view of the Potomac from the District. In 1978, the Carter administration even sued Arlington to prevent high-rises from being built in the community, but the county won the suit.

The Arlington officials have argued that Rosslyn is prime real estate and they should be able to develop it as they wish.

This May, handlers of a fictional president “The West Wing” follows the administration of Jeb Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen also tried to put the brakes on development in Rosslyn, if only for a few hours.

Benjamin Jacobs, the developer razing the 10-story Magazine Building to make room for a new, 24-story tower, granted the producers’ wish for a delay, saying it isn’t “a big deal” when fake feds make such a request.

But it is a very big deal when real-life feds criticize the Rosslyn skyline, said Mr. Jacobs, president of the JBG Cos. in the District.

“Their argument doesn’t have merit. The tall buildings in Chicago haven’t spoiled its waterfront. The tall buildings in Manhattan haven’t spoiled its waterfront,” he said.

Concrete canyon

The battle is part of a larger campaign by Arlington officials to give Rosslyn sometimes referred to as a “concrete canyon” because of its tall buildings and lack of streetside landscaping a face lift.

The community was a hot spot for the first wave of businesses that fled the District for the suburbs, beginning in the 1960s. Since then, only a handful of new offices had been built, and Rosslyn found itself stuck with a stock of aging, ‘60s-era buildings.

By the mid-1990s, the old buildings had robbed Rosslyn of a sense of community, as some residents and businesses began pulling up stakes and heading to other jurisdictions.

“There was a sense that this wasn’t a thriving downtown anymore,” said Christopher E. Zimmerman, a Democrat who sits on the Arlington County Board.

In 1996, the board adopted an ordinance that allows developers such as JBG to tear down the old buildings in Rosslyn and replace them with taller structures, part of a campaign to attract the kind of lucrative high-tech jobs that help keep tax rates low among Arlington homeowners.

The county has also ordered better landscaping and wider sidewalks in Rosslyn and the dismantling of some of its “sky-walks” overhead bridges that link its office buildings in order to get pedestrians on the street.

Officials are also working to bring more retailers and restaurants to Rosslyn to serve the community’s estimated 10,100 residents.

So far, the zoning allowing taller buildings in Rosslyn has been the most successful change, attracting plans for more than 11 million square feet in new office development.

After it finished demolishing the 10-story Magazine Building in June, JBG began construction on its 24-story replacement at 1801 N. Lynn St. The tower is the first building in Rosslyn in 10 years to be developed without pre-leased tenants. Construction is expected to take 18 months.

In July, the county gave JBG and Toronto-based TrizecHahn Corp. permission to demolish three Rosslyn office buildings and replace them with towers of 24 and 28 stories. Construction is scheduled to begin this year.

The $250 million Waterview complex will sit at the edge of the Potomac River and house offices, apartments, shops, restaurants and a hotel.

A 25-story building at 1700 N. Moore St., above the Metro station, was approved in 1998, but construction hasn’t started.

William R. Lawson, acting executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission, a federally funded, regional planning agency, said it is concerned the new development in Rosslyn may be “incompatible with the urban fabric” of the District.

Other federal officials interviewed were more critical but would not comment on the record. They said the new Waterview complex in particular will create a glass-and-steel wall that will spoil the view of the Potomac from Georgetown and the Rock Creek and Potomac parkways.

Federal legislation passed in 1910 prevents any structure within the D.C. city limits from exceeding 130 feet, although exceptions are possible in some cases. Most of the new towers in Rosslyn will be about 300 feet high.

Mr. Zimmerman defended Rosslyn’s new towers, and noted that developers must also pay the county fees in exchange for the right to build them.

For example, JBG and Trizec-Hahn will pay Arlington $11 million in fees, which Mr. Zimmer-man said will be used to make some of the street improvements in Rosslyn.

“All we’re trying to do is make it worthwhile for developers to replace these older buildings and put up first-class development in their place,” he said.

Losing tenants

The battle over new development in Rosslyn is taking place at a time when several big tenants, such as media giant Gannett Co. Inc., are planning to leave town.

Since new tenants haven’t been signed to replace the departing businesses, and since much of the new development is being built without pre-leased tenants, some analysts say Rosslyn could experience a glut of available office space in the next few years.

Other experts predict neigh-boring Crystal City, where the office market is becoming wider, could emerge as Rosslyn’s rival in the battle for new tenants.

Gannett and USA Today, the national newspaper it owns, are scheduled to move their head-quarters to Tysons Corner in 2001, leaving behind more than 500,000 square feet of space in Rosslyn Center, the twin, 31-story towers on Wilson Boulevard.

Nancy M. Houser, the executive managing Gannett’s relocation, said the company decided in 1993 it wanted to own the space it occupies and began planning its move to Tysons, where it is building an 820,000-square-foot office campus.

A key reason Gannett decided to leave Rosslyn is because no space was available in the community when it began scouting for a new home seven years ago, Ms. Houser said.

“This isn’t about Rosslyn. This is about Gannett wanting to be its own landlord,” she said.

Westfield Realty Inc., the Arlington firm that owns Rosslyn Center, said it doesn’t expect to have problems filling the space Gannett and USA Today will leave behind.

Timothy H. Helmig, vice president of Westfield, said several potential tenants have expressed interest in the space, but Westfield won’t officially begin scouting for new tenants until October.

Until then, Westfield is spending between $8 million and $10 million to renovate the towers, which were built in 1980 and 1982, Mr. Helmig said.

“This is the perfect space for a Fortune 500 tenant that wants to put its name on top of a signature building in the Washington area,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Freedom Forum announced plans this summer to move its headquarters and the Newseum, the fast-growing journalism museum it operates, from Wilson Boulevard in Rosslyn to a new building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW in the District.

The organization will leave behind about 120,000 square feet of space, including 72,000 square feet of museum space.

Charles L. Overby, chairman and chief executive of the Freedom Forum, said one reason the organization decided to move to the District is because it feared “a bias against Rosslyn” in the Washington area would stifle the Newseum’s growth.

The museum has attracted 1 million visitors since it opened in April 1997. Mr. Overby said more than half of those visitors were part of group tours bused into Rosslyn from the District.

Rosslyn doesn’t have a lot of shops and restaurants that generate pedestrian traffic, one reason most Newseum tourists are “bused in,” Mr. Overby said. He expects the number of visitors to the Newseum to rise significantly once it moves to the District because of the heavy pedestrian traffic in the city.

Mr. Overby predicted the old Newseum space will be snapped up by another museum, a goal of Arlington officials who want to develop tourism in the county.

Sources said two potential tenants are the proposed National Museum of the United States Army and a museum commemorating Arlington as the “birthplace” of the Internet. The county is home to the National Science Foundation, which is credited with developing the backbone of the modern-day Internet.

“We carved out a great space for a museum. It would be a shame to see it revert back to office space,” Mr. Overby said.

Filling the space

Scott C. Price, research chief for Delta Associates, a real estate research firm in Alexandria, said Arlington may want to concentrate on finding another museum to replace the Newseum, since so much new office space will be hitting the market in Rosslyn.

The new “speculative” develop-ment in the community, combined with the loss of big tenants like Gannett, could create an office space glut in Rosslyn in the next few years, he said.

“That will be the challenge filling all that space,” Mr. Price said.

Research by D.C.-based commercial real estate brokerage Cassidy & Pinkard Inc. shows Rosslyn has one of the tightest office markets in red-hot Northern Virginia.

The office vacancy rate in Rosslyn is 2.3 percent, well below the 3.4 percent rate for all of Northern Virginia.

Adam J. Wasserman, director of the Arlington County Department of Economic Development, said numbers like that shows Rosslyn needs more office space.

“We think [the new buildings] will put us on the map and allow us to demonstrate we have the infrastructure to support new business development,” Mr. Wasserman said.

But filling the space may prove tougher than the county expects, according to Mary S. Petersen, Cassidy & Pinkard’s director of market research.

Rosslyn may find itself competing with neighboring Crystal City in Arlington for tenants seeking large blocks of office space, Mrs. Petersen said.

Traditionally, both communities have attracted federal agencies and contractors. However, two of Crystal City’s biggest tenants the U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office are planning to move from Arlington, leaving behind an estimated 1 million square feet of vacant office space in Crystal City.

“Crystal City has not competed with Rosslyn in the past. Ob-viously that’s changing,” Mrs. Petersen said.

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