August 16, 2002
Hunter Mill District Planning Commissioner Frank de la Fe is looking forward to the day when a rail line connects the West Falls Church Metro station to Dulles Airport, making stops in Herndon, Reston and Tysons Corner along the way. At these stops, he envisions the combination of residential and commercial developments which are called for in the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan, the document that outlines the county’s land use policy.
The plan explicitly calls for both residential and commercial development in order to make sure that the stations along the Dulles corridor are used both as destination stations by office workers and origin stations by residents along the corridor.
“You actually could have rail in both directions,” he said.
If that were the case, stops along the Dulles corridor would be markedly different from the Vienna or Dunn Loring/Merrifield stops along Metro’s Orange Line where passengers crowd onto the eastbound trains in the morning, leaving the westbound ones virtually empty and reverse the process in the evening.
“The thing that makes transit work is full use of the capacity,” said Fred Selden, director of the planning division for the Department of Planning and Zoning. “That’s why you want the mix of uses.”
The mix of uses has not come to the Vienna station. Residential developments have sprouted near the station and continue to be built while there are few commercial properties in the area. New homes are planned at the corner of Nutley Street and Route 29 on land that is owned by developer Trammel Crow.
BUT THAT was not always the case. In the 1970s, several years before the Vienna Metro station opened in 1986, the Comprehensive Plan called for a combination of high-rise residential buildings and high-rise commercial buildings. In the 1980s the plan was changed to allow a townhouse development next to the commercial properties. That development, called Regent’s Park, has now been built. And then, about five years ago, the Peterson Companies, which then owned the land, decided the market was better for residential developments near the station and got language in the Comprehensive Plan changed to strike commercial developments from the plan for those parcels.
“The big difficulty at Vienna Metro is that it essentially is a residential community and the only area available for office is a very small area,” said Jeffrey Saxe, of Peterson, noting that offices like to locate near restaurants, coffee shops or copy shops, all of which are scarce near the station.
“It’s much more desirable to have dense residential near Metro,” he added, because Metro commuters will be attracted to those developments, resulting in greater transit use.
According to Selden, there is nothing unusual about making changes to the Comprehensive Plan after it’s been approved.
“Comprehensive Plans are meant to change to reflect changing conditions and circumstances,” he said.
Saxe agreed. “The Comprehensive Plan is a living changing document,” he said. “It was designed that way.”
THE COUNTY did not give up on the idea of having mixed use development on the site easily, said Supervisor Gerald Connolly (D-Providence), whose district includes the station.
“I pleaded with the owners to take a fresh look at the commercial properties of this site,” he said. “I was trying to look at smart-growth concepts and have mixed-use developments.”
Despite his best efforts, Connolly said, the hot market for residential developments on the parcels sealed the Vienna Metro’s fate as a one-way commuter station.
“We couldn’t get the market to go with commercial,” said Connolly.
He added that there were no vocal community concerns about having commercial developments on the site. “The only community concerns I ever heard was when somebody proposed a hotel,” he said. That idea was quickly scrapped.
COULD STATIONS along the Dulles Corridor suffer the same fate as the Vienna Metro? Could the Comprehensive Plan be rewritten to take out certain developments if the market for them proves sluggish?
Selden does not think so.
“The difference out in Tysons and the Dulles Corridor is you already have the office [developments],” he said.
But Connolly said it was “possible” for the landscape around the Dulles Corridor to look different than the vision outlined in the Comprehensive Plan.
“Government can re-plan but we can’t make somebody build what they don’t want to build,” he said. “At the end of the day, there’s still no substitute for the market.”