Do skylines matter? Planners in Arlington say they do, and are re-planning Rosslyn to give it a better, more sensible one.

Possible future Rosslyn skyline. All images from Arlington County.

Rosslyn is the most prominent cluster of tall buildings in the Washington region, and with more development coming it’s only going to get more substantial. To get Rosslyn right, planners must grapple with how the height and form of such tall buildings affects their surroundings.

Realize Rosslyn will be Arlington’s plan to transform Rosslyn from a dense but historically car centric area to a more pedestrian friendly place. Among other things, the plan will delve into how building scale, mass, and views affect aesthetics, light, air, open space, and walkability.

Another scenario for a possible future Rosslyn.

What’s at stake?

Existing policy in central Rosslyn is to taper building heights so the tallest buildings are near the center, with shorter ones on the edges. That keeps the greatest building heights closest to the Metro station, and makes for a gradual transition from quieter nearby streets.

But the existing taper policy isn’t perfect. The rules aren’t specific on how the taper should occur, nor do they prescribe lower densities in areas with shorter buildings.

And then there’s the hill.

Rosslyn is on a steep hill, sloping up away from the Potomac. Between the hill and the taper, some buildings may not be able to simultaneously meet their permitted densities while satisfying the taper rules.

In short, two different policies are pushing development in Rosslyn in two different directions. 

Meanwhile, existing policies also need to work economically.  If new buildings can’t go tall enough to make it worthwhile to knock down an older building on the same site, property owners may not redevelop at all.

That may stand in the way of achieving the community’s goals for a more walkable, up-to-date Rosslyn. To meet those goals, county planners need to develop better rules to allow them to happen, rather than rules that work against each other and don’t work economically.

That means looking strategically at where and how taller buildings might be appropriate.

And of course, it’s still more complicated. Skyline planning is a balancing act. Taller buildings still need to comfortably transition to adjacent neighborhoods, and maintain views from the public observation deck atop the future CEB Tower, and minimize shadows. All in addition to the normal things planners have to get right, like sidewalk retail and walkable design.

Three scenarios, next steps

For Rosslyn, planners are developing multiple alternate scenarios looking at the effects of different building masses. There are scenarios for individual sites, and collectively across central Rosslyn.

Three potential development scenarios for the same property.

These images are a sneak peek of preliminary work, but more details will be available to the public when planners present their initial modeling work at a meeting on Tuesday, September 30.

Later this fall, the community will use the modeling work to help formulate specific recommendations for Rosslyn’s form and massing.

Anthony Fusarelli is a Principal Planner for Arlington County. He is the county’s project lead for the Realize Rosslyn community planning effort for the Rosslyn Sector Plan Update.