Identifying serious problems with the process and the results of the Lubber Run Park project (September 14, 2017)

September 14, 2017

Dear Chair Fisette and members of the Arlington County Board:

It is doubtful that I will be able to attend the Sept. 16 County Board meeting. Please distribute these comments to all board members and add them to the public record.

Naturally, I am grateful for any positive design “tweaks” that Board members authorized in July. However, the very modest changes presented by architect VMDO and staff are of questionable value:

• Only four (4) additional trees are being saved, going from 109 down to 105 — even though the Urban Forestry Commission’s Aug. 7 letter warns that the building’s footprint “damages high value trees by intruding excessively into the natural areas of Lubber Run Park.”

• It is unclear whether the 20-foot reduction of the “west” wing will reduce the building’s footprint and the larger excavation boundary far enough to move avoid the natural slope down to Lubber Run and lessen the risk of runoff and erosion problems (and expensive mitigation strategies to combat these problems) before and after construction.

• Staff’s presentation on the soil/water conditions (slide 14) is incomplete and thus misleading. Of course the level of groundwater is below the “floor level” but it is NOT below the foundation level, as is clearly indicated in the draft geotechnical report’s strategies to deal with water flowing around the garage and building foundation walls (p. 11–13, Section 4.9).

Section 4.0 cites one of two “major geotechnical considerations” as being “A Seasonal High Water Table (SHWT) that is above or near the lowest floor elevation of the planned parking garage.”

Section 4.3.1. discusses dewatering strategies because, as the report states, “We anticipate groundwater may be encountered” during construction.

The boring samples taken are NOT definitive. The draft report contains clear disclaimers.

Section 3.2.2. notes, “Fluctuations in ground or perched water levels should be expected with variations in factors such as precipitation, surface run-off, construction activity, etc…. Soil strata and groundwater conditions between test borings may vary from conditions observed at each test boring location.”

Section 5.2. warns, “This report does not reflect variations that may occur across the site, or due to the modifying effects of weather. The nature and extent of such variations may not become evident until during or after construction…. [I]t is sometimes difficult to record changes in subsoil stratigraphy within narrow limits; therefore, some deviation in the materials reported on the field logs and the materials encountered at the site should be anticipated…. Any conclusions or recommendations based on data contained in this report that are made by others are the responsibility of others.

The water table was likely lower than normal when the boring samples were taken, as Arlington experienced drought for the first 6 months of 2017 — which not lifted until June 21 ( — just two days before the draft report is dated. There’s no indication that additional bore samples were taken for comparison after a heavy rain event or after the drought notice had been lifted.

In addition, the “high” soil permeability being touted is moot once that soil is saturated — say, for example, with groundwater.

Staff Report

Looking at the staff report, I note several omissions/concerns:

• Comparing the Sept. board report with the July board report for LRCC, I see that the project’s contingency funding has shrunk dramatically from around $2.9 million to $250,000. Rather than adopting the simple design change (rotating the “L” wing of the parking garage) proposed by Marta Layseca on 8-11-17, VMDO made alterations to its existing building design. Presumably, this more complicated solution enabled VMDO to charge significant change fees while providing very limited progress in reaching Board and community goals.

• There is no mention of the impending Carlin Springs bridge replacement and the related replacement of the sanitary sewer infrastructure at N. Abingdon Street. The bridge’s capacity will be substantially reduced during construction, and there are some periodic road closures (including N. George Mason Drive) during construction.

If this bridge project coincides with LRCC construction, it almost certainly will affect construction-vehicle access to the LRCC site — yet staff has identified no strategies to mitigate diversion of traffic onto neighborhood streets, which are likely to bear the brunt.

• There is no mention of the elevated track — a feature strongly desired by the community but not included in the very generous — some might say excessive — $47.860 million budget.

• Staff says that the county will “look for ways” to include solar panels and the geothermal heating system, but neither of these items is included in the project’s very generous budget even though these “net-zero” elements were championed by the county’s own commissions and were on the table from the very beginning of the design process.

• The report is silent on the ability of this design to accommodate future upward expansion (adding floors to the 1-story building components) to meet the needs of a burgeoning population in West Ballston/East Bluemont (Marymount=267 units, Ballston Qtr.=401 units, Mazda/BF Saul=491 units, 672 Flats/Penrose=173, total=1,332 new households) in addition to Buckingham and Arlington Forest. If additional floors are to be added, then the foundations must be designed NOW to carry added weight in the future.

Final Remarks

I am beyond disappointed in the public process and outcome of this project. We appear to have repeated the same mistakes occurring with the $1 million bus stop design — a design-by-committee process that totally ignored cost and based technical and design decisions on uninformed community preference rather than professional best practices. The result? We ended up with a grossly expensive bus stop that didn’t protect bus patrons from the elements — which ultimately exposed the county to well-deserved ridicule on national television.

As I’ve noted in previous remarks, the cost for this project greatly exceeds the “high” cost average for building a 110,000 sq ft community center in Arlington County by over 3.5 times: $13 million vs. $47 million, according to‘s construction cost estimating tool.

Even with this swollen budget, the architect was somehow unable to produce a design that incorporated a much-desired elevated track, solar panels and a geothermal system.

In fact, county staff gave the contractor (VMDO) a free hand to egg on community members to select expensive and inappropriate design options in a Christmas-in-July-style feeding frenzy that saddled us with an over-designed structure that seriously degrades scarce parkland, adds significant risk of erosion and runoff problems (that require costly manmade “solutions” to mitigate), ignores basic low impact site design concepts, and largely disregards the county commissions’ and community’s clearly expressed desires to minimize the environmental impact of this project on high-value, sensitive natural land.

To add insult to injury, VMDO is now squeezing the county for additional funding for any attempt made to correct the very serious shortcomings inflicted by its unsuitable design.

When will we learn?

Rather than allowing the next design firm to hold us hostage, I ask that the County Board and management take a serious look at its request for proposal language, contracts provisions, oversight mechanisms and processes to find a way to properly manage and oversee the activities of contractors and firms doing work on the county’s behalf so that we can be assured that we will get an outcome that is commensurate with the top dollars we are spending.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Very truly yours,

Suzanne Smith Sundburg