Mass murder, national security, terrorism: the usual stuff of National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) meetings. Yesterday's review of the Washington Headquarters Services (WHS) at Mark Center, part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) project had all sorts of unexpected drama. The rare colorful discussion included one Commissioner who cited 9/11 as the reason for his disregard for community complaints about security measures, another sardonically suggested the Army valued employees over citizens, and a neighbor who loudly drew a picture of mass murder in the cul-de-sacs of Alexandria because of the new Mark Center. The two-hour NCPC soap opera belied the stringent federally-mandated design standards for the new behemoth, which leave few design elements up for debate.
The 1.7 million s.f. building, developed by Duke Realty, will sit on 16 acres of land located west of Seminary Road and I-395 in Alexandria. Duke is working with project architects HKS and WBA, Clark Construction, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers and the City of Alexandria. The two office towers are 15 and 17 stories, connecting on their first 10 floors, and will house 6,400 DOD personnel. The exteriors will feature materials that meet federally mandated security standards including blast-resistant glass and preventative measures against "progressive collapse."
Even with the limited flexibility for design, the Army Corps of Engineers worked closely with the City of Alexandria to accommodate concerns raised about the size and appearance of the buildings - with space for 29,000 employees it will be one of northern Virginia's largest - which will be highly visible from the surrounding community. Updated plans include architectural refinements such as more noticeable curvature on the rooftops and an area for a public art display at the North Parking Garage, though the City remains less than thrilled with the overall design.
The planned remote inspection facility (RIF) was the reason for all the shouting and name calling at the NCPC meeting. The facility, which allows for dog inspection of vehicles prior to entering the main campus, will be located in a "secure area of the east campus, over 610 feet away from the office towers," according to the NCPC staff report. From the beginning, the City requested this facility be located in an off site location, citing design concerns, traffic issues and worries over the safety of the community. Since the original request the Army has determined that the facility must be located on site, but has made efforts to add screening along adjoining Seminary Road to minimize its visual impact and has added a green roof to the facility. According to Peter Sholz, Senior VP of DC Operations for Duke Realty, the group has adjusted the design significantly, even adding blast-proof features to reassure the community.
Sholz said about the overall design that it is "important to note that the government agreed to make some significant modifications in response to comments from the city and citizens." He added that modifications to the RIF and changes in the design such as adding a circular loop access road, pedestrian bridge, and facade changes have increased the cost of the project to the government by between $15 and $18 million. Sholz said the final project costs are hard to estimate and it is "conceivable" that the added costs could be offset through various cost saving measures the group is taking.
Despite the hubbub, the designs received NCPC approval, though not unanimous, and Sholz said the project is on schedule for completion in 20 months.
On a technical note, the NCPC has an advisory role in reviewing federal projects in Northern Virginia in the "environs" if DC. Generally a project comes before the NCPC and does not begin construction until it receives final review with approval and recommendations. Mark Center is an odd exception to the processes and authorities of the NCPC in that the structure, despite lacking final approval, is already at advanced stages of construction in order to meet the BRAC federally mandated September 2011 timeline. David Levy, NCPC Director of Urban Design and Plan Review, said the Commission gave the project foundation approval in February, hence the construction, and that yesterday's meeting addressed the preliminary and final site and building plans.
The design elements for the two towers debated at yesterday's meeting have not yet been constructed, though the developers hesitated to bend to the requests from Alexandria for further adjusted building designs;the steel for the structures has already been ordered. Sholz did say that the team spoke with their steel company just yesterday to see if there was a way to change the shape of the ordered product to meet the City's design requests. Sholz's continued efforts support Levy's assertion that the NCPC approval was in part an expression of the Commission's confidence the design issues could be worked out.
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