But in the past year, some residents of the surrounding neighborhoods have been scrutinizing drawings and sitting through hour-long Zoom meetings to consider a much more high-profile future for what is currently a speck of gravel, dirt and trees: how exactly should see, feel and function as the largest part of Amazon’s second headquarters in Arlington County.
The tech giant’s proposal, which includes three office buildings to house the company’s employees, plus retail pavilions, a glass helix and about 2.75 acres of open space, is due to be submitted to county lawmakers on Saturday for final approval. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Daniel Weir, chairman of the planning commission, called it a “new chapter” for economic development in the county. “This is one of the biggest projects that has come before Arlington, and so I think there is more engagement and involvement now than there ever has been,” he said of the county’s review of the site, known as PenPlace.
Metropolitan Park, a set of double Amazon buildings just down the street that is due to open in mid-2023, has already reached its maximum height. The company also rents office space in three other buildings in Crystal City. But the larger PenPlace location, with its 3.3 million square feet of office and retail space, promises to serve as a sort of hub for Amazon’s headquarters.
The review process has therefore also assumed unusually high stakes and unusually high standards. Over the past year, residents and citizen groups have raised questions about everything from the technology company’s monitoring practices and its use of green spaces to the appropriate width to the sidewalks around the complex.
JBG Smith, who acts as Amazon developer and owns about a quarter of real estate in the area, maintains that it has engaged with residents on these and other issues through months of reviews. (The developer is set to close its sale of PenPlace to Amazon for $ 198 million this year.)
“Input from community residents and other key local stakeholders is crucial to this process, and we greatly appreciate and benefit from this ongoing dialogue,” said Kai Reynolds, JBG Smith’s Chief Development Officer, in a statement. “Together, we pursue a collective vision, which has been underway for years, of a welcoming place that can be enjoyed by all.”
But as Amazon’s arrival in the area has prompted developers to push for a dramatic transformation of the neighborhood, many questions – and some frustrations – continue as it enters Saturday’s poll among neighbors about the impact the technology giant’s plans will have in the coming decades.
“When we first chose National Landing as the site for HQ2, we were committed to being a trusted community partner in the region,” said John Schoettler, Amazon’s Vice President of Global Real Estate and Facilities, in a statement. “Part of this commitment includes engaging in and listening to our neighbors’ feedback as we develop design plans for this project.”
In response to input from neighbors, the company added protected bike paths on three streets around PenPlace, included more green space and wider roads and expanded the amount of roof solar panels, part of a promise to operate the complex with only renewable energy.
Still, some are concerned about the impact on low-income tenants nearby. Others worry about what it might mean for traffic in the area. Many want to see more facilities, such as a town hall or library, set aside for local residents.
“The cake is often half-baked, and people’s ability to influence what happens is often more marginal,” compared to other projects, said Christer Ahl, the former chairman of the Crystal City Citizens Review Council, which represents residents in that neighborhood. “The county, landowners and developers have plenty of opportunities behind the scenes to discuss what would be comfortable before society gets involved.”
If it’s a dramatic new chapter for Arlington, it’s also one that many say has felt inevitable.
From boxy offices to a high-tech Helix
Once a sleepy bedroom community, Arlington transformed itself into a dense, transit-powered powerhouse, largely on the basis of careful planning. In the 1960s, county officials set out to put subway lines underground, a foresighted move that would spur business activity along transit-rich corridors in Arlington.
It was “transit-oriented development” before that phrase ever entered the urban planning encyclopedia: When Metro opened a station in Pentagon City, officials put together the region’s first guidelines for what property owners could build and where. It marked the development of office buildings for two large public authorities, hotels and a shopping mall.
But this corridor never quite kept pace with North Arlington’s greatest density. Major security concerns in the post-9/11 era also prompted many federal offices to relocate outside the Beltway, and in 2005 federal officials withdrew 17,000 military and defense personnel from Crystal City. The box-shaped buildings and underground passages emptied out, leaving Arlington officials struggling to save much of its commercial tax base.
Fast forward to 2018: When Amazon chose to place its new offices there, it was a match made in development heaven. The company needed a space with enough empty space to build state-of-the-art offices for 25,000 employees, while being located in the kind of transit-rich urban environment that could attract the young technology workers it coveted.
And the county needed a larger tenant to fill – or attract others to fill – the thousands of square feet of Metro-practical office space that had stood empty for years. (Under its agreements with Virginia, the company is eligible to receive as much as $ 770 million in cash grants from the state’s coffers, provided its corporate employment in Arlington earns an average of $ 150,000 a year.)
“Five or 10 years ago, the assets that were in place functioned in a way that I do not think warranted significant changes,” he said. Matt Mattauszek, a development planner for the county. “We are dealing with a very different starting point than the vision of the 1970s. … Because with the arrival of Amazon, all the first packages have now been expanded. ”
When PenPlace was reviewed, a rash of other activity – including several major transportation projects accelerated by the agreement – prompted the county to reformulate its plan for the entire neighborhood.
Darren Buck, a former transportation commissioner in Arlington, said the county’s planning process for the Pentagon City area should have preceded any Amazon plan. Because the sector plan and the site plan for PenPlace were developed simultaneously, he said, it ultimately allowed the technology giant’s vision for its offices to shape the neighborhood’s plan – rather than the other way around.
“It did not start from that place, ‘Hey, community, let’s talk about how we can make our community different, better, grow it,'” said Buck, who runs a Twitter account calling for a “CarFreeHQ2. “” It is instead about what the landowner, who owns a quarter of the area, thinks. The result will still be a fine place. But it is a very backward force dynamic. ”
A new draft Pentagon City plan was passed this year to significant opposition from residents who opposed further density for an apartment complex owned by JBG Smith. And Buck said the PenPlace plan ultimately overturned previous drawings that split the site with a street network in favor of maintaining a larger, cohesive “mega-block.”
Ben D’Avanzo, who represents the Aurora Highlands Civic Association in a PenPlace review panel, said the ultimate result makes sense. Charging quays, parking and other bulky, ugly uses can be hidden underground, with more publicly facing benefits – such as the “Green Ribbon”, a trail of open, biophilic spaces – located between office buildings on the ground.
But, he said, there has only been a limited planning process for some of the green areas that felt “decided in advance.” Walkways in that area, he noted, lead from the main entrances to every Amazon office in the complex, which could give the area more of the feel of a business campus than a park open to the community.
A clash of societal benefits
Unlike most of its neighbors, Arlington generally does not negotiate with developers in exchange for money for county services. Instead, legislators can approve construction that exceeds the zoning rules for height and density in exchange for an amorphous concept known as “community benefits.”
In the case of PenPlace, Amazon is donating $ 30 million to the county’s affordable housing fund – the largest contribution to date to this fund, which Arlington uses to subsidize the construction of apartments for below market price. (It’s over $ 20 million from Amazon donated to the MetPark Foundation.)
Neighbors have suggested a wide range of ideas for additional benefits. Not long after Amazon announced plans for its second headquarters, an association of residents in the neighborhood formed under the “Livability 22202” umbrella, named after the zip code that covers large parts of South Arlington.
They offered a detailed range of inquiries to county and business officials – from the green ribbon to a primary school to serve the growing number of families, a community center that could serve the elderly elderly in place and a library to replace the limited space that is glued to another plant.
Last In the fall, however, Amazon and the county issued an announcement about an addition that had never appeared on the group’s list: A permanent space for the alternative Arlington Community High School, which serves mostly working adults and has jumped around the facilities.
This is in some ways modeled after Amazon’s approach in Seattle, where the company houses a shelter for women and children experiencing homelessness, in one of the company’s buildings. Residents said that although permanent space for the high school is welcome, it would not serve the immediate neighborhood.
Such a sentiment added other concerns from residents who worry they will be shut off campus: The Helix, the distinctive architectural feature of PenPlace that will be covered by local flora from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, is largely limited to Amazon employees and will only be open to residents two weekends a month.
“We designed PenPlace to be part of the local neighborhood because we want both employees and local residents to enjoy the space equally,” Schoettler, Amazon director, said in a blog post this week. (Amazon did not respond to requests for an interview or comment within the deadline.)
Arlingtonians for a Sustainable Future, which is generally in favor of more measured development, has urged county lawmakers to demand greater value from the extra density that PenPlace developers are requesting.
“I think the county has adopted this whole area plan and has said to all the citizens, ‘You get a really good deal,'” said Anne Bodine, a member of the group. But, she added, “we are basically screwed together because we times do not get our benefits for several years and they get theirs in advance. “
But Weir, chairman of the Arlington Planning Commission, said frustrations are bound to be more common as the process incorporates multiple views.
“That we have a broader diversity of perspectives tells us that we have actually moved in the right direction when it comes to getting more engagement,” he said. “When you get more votes, and when you have a bigger project, it will seem like there is less consensus because you want more votes at the table.”
Editing Jennifer Barrios. Video by Hadley Green. Video editing by Nicki DeMarco. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Design by JC Reed.