Amazon headquarters at PenPlace up for Arlington County Board vote

Amazon will bring more than 25,000 workers to the region as it opens its new headquarters. Experts weigh in on how this could impact gentrification and jobs. (Video: Hadley Green/The Washington Post, Photo: Jackie Lay/The Washington Post)

Just over the highway from the Pentagon, an empty plot of land is coming under the spotlight like never before.

This 10.4-acre slice of Northern Virginia — one of the largest undeveloped parcels located close to downtown DC — has hosted a traveling equestrian circus showbeen home to a Marriott hotel, and was even considered for a Major League ballpark.

But for the past year, some residents from the surrounding neighborhoods have pored over blueprints and sat through hours-long Zoom meetings to consider a much more high-profile future for what is currently a patch of gravel, dirt and trees: how exactly it should look, feel and operate as the largest part of Amazon’s second headquarters in Arlington County.

The tech giant’s proposal, which includes three office buildings to house its corporate employees, plus retail pavilions, a glass Helix and about 2.75 acres of open space, is set to go before county lawmakers on Saturday for final approval. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Daniel Weir, the chair 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 about the county’s review process for the site, known as PenPlace.

Metropolitan Park, a set of twin Amazon buildings just down the street that is set to open in mid-2023, has already reached its maximum height. The company is also leasing office space at three other buildings in Crystal City. But the larger PenPlace site, with its 3.3 million square feet of office and retail space, promises to serve as a kind of centerpiece for the Amazon headquarters.

The review process, then, has assumed unusually high stakes and unusually high standards, too. Over the past year, residents and civic groups have raised questions on everything from the tech company’s surveillance practices and its use of green space to the appropriate width for the sidewalks around the complex.

JBG Smith, which is serving as Amazon’s 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.)

“The input of community residents and other key local stakeholders is vital to this process, and we greatly appreciate and benefit from this continued dialogue,” Kai Reynolds, JBG Smith’s chief development officer, said in a statement. “Together, we are pursuing a collective vision, which has been in the works 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 neighborhoodmany questions — and some frustrations — persist going into Saturday’s vote among neighbors over the impact the tech giant’s plans will have in the decades to come.

“When we first chose National Landing as the site of HQ2, we made a commitment to be a trusted community partner in the region,” John Schoettler, Amazon’s vice president of global real estate and facilities, said in a statement. “Part of that commitment includes engaging with and listening to our neighbors’ feedback as we developed design plans for this project.”

In response to input from neighbors, the company added protected bike lanes on three streets around PenPlace, included more green space and wider roads, and expanded the amount of rooftop solar panels, part of a pledge to power the complex with only renewable energy.

Still, some are worried about the effect on low-income renters nearby. Others fret over what it might mean for the flow of traffic in the area. Many want to see more facilities, like a community center or library, set aside for local residents.

“The cake is often half-baked and people’s ability to impact what’s happening is often more marginal” compared to other projects, said Christer Ahl, the former chair of the Crystal City Citizens Review Council, which represents residents of that neighborhood. “The county, landowners and developers have loads of opportunities behind the scenes to discuss what would be agreeable before the community 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 into a dense, transit-powered powerhouse largely on the basis of careful planning. In the 1960s, county officials made the gamble to put Metro lines underground, a prescient 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 lexicon: When Metro opened a station in Pentagon City, officials put together the region’s first blueprint setting guidelines for what property owners could build and where. That shaped the development of office buildings for two major government agencies, hotels and a mall.

But this corridor never quite kept up with North Arlington’s greatest density. Heightened security concerns in the post-9/11 era also prompted many federal offices to move outside the Beltway, and federal officials in 2005 pulled 17,000 military and defense employees from Crystal City. The boxy buildings and underground passageways emptied out, leaving Arlington officials scrambling to salvage a major piece of its commercial tax base.

Fast forward to 2018: When Amazon chose to locate its new offices there, it was a match made in development heaven. The company needed a site with enough empty space to build state-of-the-art offices for 25,000 employees, while also located in the kind of transit-rich, urban setting that could attract the young tech workers it coveted.

And the county needed a major tenant to fill — or attract others to fill — the thousands of square feet of Metro-convenient office space that sat empty for years. (Per its agreements with Virginia, the company stands to receive as much as $770 million in cash grants from the state’s coffers, on the condition that its corporate hires in Arlington earn an average of $150,000 a year.)

“Five or 10 years ago, the assets that were in place were operating in a way that I think did not warrant significant change,” said Matt Mattauszek, a development planner for the county. “We’re dealing with a very different starting position from the 1970s vision. … Because with Amazon’s arrival, all those initial parcels have now been built out.”

As PenPlace came under review, a rash of other activity — including several major transportation projects sped up by the deal — prompted the county to redraft its blueprint for the entire neighborhood.

Darren Buck, a former Arlington transportation commissioner, said the county’s planning process for the Pentagon City area should have preceded any Amazon blueprints. Because the sector plan and the site plan for PenPlace were developed concurrently, he said, it ultimately allowed the tech giant’s vision for its offices to shape the neighborhood blueprint — rather than the other way around.

“It didn’t start from that place of, ‘Hey, community, let’s talk about how we can make our community different, better, grow it,’ ” said Buck, who runs a Twitter account where he calls for a “CarFreeHQ2. ” “Instead, it’s about what the landowner who owns a quarter of the area thinks. The outcome will still be a fine place. But it’s a very backwards power dynamic.”

A new draft of the Pentagon City plan was passed this year, to significant opposition from residents who opposed additional density for an apartment complex owned by JBG Smith. And Buck said the PenPlace plan ultimately cast aside previous blueprints that broke up the site with a street grid in favor of preserving a larger, contiguous “mega-block.”

Ben D’Avanzo, who represents the Aurora Highlands Civic Association on a PenPlace review panel, said the ultimate outcome makes sense. Loading docks, parking and other bulky, unsightly uses can be hidden underground, with more public-facing benefits — such as the “Green Ribbon,” a trail of open, biophilic spaces — situated between office buildings on the ground level.

But, he said, there’s been only a limited planning process for some of the green space that felt “pre-decided.” Walkways on that area, he noted, lead from the principal entrances to each Amazon office in that complex, which could give the area more of the feel of a corporate campus than a park that’s open to the community.

A clash over community benefits

Unlike most of its neighbors, Arlington does not generally negotiate with developers in exchange for money to county services. Instead, lawmakers can approve construction that exceeds zoning rules on 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 for that fund, which Arlington uses to subsidize the construction of below-market-rate apartments. (That’s on top of $20 million that Amazon donated to the fund for MetPark.)

Neighbors have proposed a long list of ideas for additional benefits. Not long after Amazon announced plans for its second headquarters, an association of neighborhood residents formed under the “Livability 22202” umbrella, named after the Zip code that covers much of South Arlington.

They offered a detailed series of asks for county and company officials — from the Green Ribbon to an elementary school to serve the growing number of families, a community center that could serve aging seniors in place and a library to replace the limited space tacked onto another facility.

Last fall, however, Amazon and the county rolled out an announcement for 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 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 at one of its corporate buildings. Residents said that while permanent space for the high school is welcome, it wouldn’t serve the immediate neighborhood.

Such a sentiment added to other concerns from residents who worry they will be shut out of the campus: TheHelixthe signature architectural feature of PenPlace that will be covered with local flora from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, is largely restricted to Amazon employees and will only be open to residents two weekend days a month.

“We’ve designed PenPlace to be part of the local neighborhood because we want both employees and local residents to enjoy the space equally,” Schoettler, the Amazon executive, said in to blog post this week. (Amazon did not respond to requests for an interview or comment by deadline.)

Arlingtonians for a Sustainable Future, which generally advocates for more measured development, has called on county lawmakers to demand greater value from the additional density requested by PenPlace’s developers.

“I mean, the county has adopted this whole site plan and has told all the citizens, ‘You’re going to get a really good deal,’ ” said Anne Bodine, a member of the group. But, she added, “we are getting basically screwed, because we’re not getting our benefits for sometimes years and they’re getting theirs upfront.”

But Weir, the chair of the Arlington Planning Commission, said frustrations are bound to be more common when the process incorporates more points of view.

“That we have a broader diversity of perspectives tells us that we have in fact moved in the right direction when it comes to getting more engagement,” he said. “When you get more voices and when you have a bigger project, it is going to look like there is less consensus, because you’re going to have more voices at the table.”

Editing by Jennifer Barrios. Video by Hadley Green. Video editing by Nicki DeMarco. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Design by JC Reed.

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