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Air rights proposal draws interest in Northern Virginia

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Print this page By Paula C. Squires

The potential development of air rights above and near two metro stations in Northern Virginia is drawing interest from developers.

The idea, floated by the governor’s office in a news release earlier this month, calls for the possibility of mixed-use facilities in the airspace over I-66 at the East Falls Church Metro Station and the Rosslyn Metro Station in Arlington County. Such projects, already in use in other states, could generate additional revenues for transportation improvements.

“We at Comstock are very intrigued,” said Maggie Parker, director of communications and community outreach for Comstock Partners in Reston. “The East Falls Church station is something we’ve looked at from afar. It would be a terrific application. It’s a smaller piece. Engineering wise, it looks like it could work.”

Parker envisions a mixed-use, multiple-family project. “It would depend on how much density they would want to give.”

The Rosslyn station site is larger and might be harder to develop from an engineering standpoint, she added. Her company, which focuses on large, transit –oriented developments, may submit a request for information by the Sept. 30 deadline the state has set in the first step of exploring what could lead to a more formal request for proposals.

Aaron Georgelas, a partner with the Georgelas Group in McLean, also has good things to say about air rights. That’s the legal term to describe the upper horizontal plane of a transportation facility located within right-of-way boundaries. The state can receive revenues from air rights leases, providing a revenue stream for transportation projects. Private or public uses of the airspace are allowed as long as they don’t interfere with the operation and maintenance of the facility.

“Air rights have always been a great way to redevelop metro stations. It’s something we’ve seen done before, and it’s highly successful,” Georgelas told Virginia Business. “The more people we can get near a metro station, that would be good. It comes down to engineering and how you build on top of the metro station. It’s always a question, when you are doing an overuse or vertical construction. The structure can be more expensive,” he said.

Currently, no zoning exists for air rights development over the I-66 right-of-way in Arlington. But if a large expression of interest comes in response to the state’s effort to explore this route, then Virginia could work with Arlington County to revise planning to allow this potential, the governor’s office said in its release.

Charles Dilks, an executive vice president for Colliers in Washington, D.C., noted that the Rosslyn site could pose problems, because of existing buildings like The Corporate Executive Board’s headquarters. In Rosslyn, the site in question is not on top of the metro station, he noted. It runs over top of I-66, east of the North Lynn Street bypass.

“If they were to try and develop that site, it would have an adverse impact on some of the property owners that have frontage on I-66, and the Potomac River. I would think that those owners would be very upset to find that this kind of signature property would no longer have the visibility and views that they expected and as such they would probably protest any development and claim an adverse impact in taking it,” Dilks said.

An alternative for that site could be a lower development that is not as dense or high, he added.

Secretary of Transportation Sean T. Connaughton said in a statement that “ Virginia has long been a leader in partnering with the private sector to advance innovative solutions to our transportation infrastructure needs. The potential development of these air rights presents a unique opportunity to attract additional private sector investment to the commonwealth and better utilize our existing assets to fund future transportation projects.”

According to the governor’s office, such projects have raised money in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation generated $40 million in fiscal 2011 through leases, with long-term lease income projected at $868 million. Earlier this year the department reportedly awarded a contract for an additional air rights project through a 99-year lease that will generate $18.5 million (net present value) in rental payments.

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