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Clarendon Neighbors Fight Market Common Changes

Developer asks to cut money for sidewalks, affordable housing, but community says ‘No’ to those plans.

Five months ago, Clarendon neighbors of the Market Common were happy with plans to expand the mixed apartment building and shopping center.

Tuesday night, however, found those same neighbors crying foul.

Neighbors in Courthouse, Clarendon and Lyon Park had worked with McCaffrey Interests, the developer behind Market Common, and had finally come to an agreement.

McCaffrey would put better sidewalks, crosswalks and signals at intersections around its new, three-story shopping complex and parking garage, and would use specific materials in the building at Wilson Boulevard and North Fillmore, which would replace the former Blockbuster video building across from the first phase of the Market Common.

In return, civic associations around the area would drop their objections to the building, and tell county government that they supported the Market Common, Phase II, a three-story building with 23,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor and a two deck parking garage with about 150 spaces.

But at their July 30 meeting, County Board members heard little support from neighbors and civic association.

Instead, neighbors said the developer was trying to renege on earlier agreements, deals that earned county approval for the project. They point to another McCaffrey development in Minnesota as proof of bad faith. And they say the developer’s actions could set a pattern, letting developers bend the county planning process to their own wills, giving up little.

<b>REPRESENTATIVES OF MCCAFFREY</b> asked that the county eliminate almost all requirements for pedestrian improvements at the second Market Common site, along with requirements that the developer make a $24,000 donation to the county’s affordable housing fund and bury utilities at the site.

Those requirements would make the project insupportably expensive, McCaffrey told the county, and might force the developer to abandon plans for the second half of the project.

If McCaffrey can’t afford to build the right kind of building, it’s just as well that they abandon the site, or build something smaller there, said Peter Owen, president of the Clarendon-Courthouse Civic Association.

"Our view is, without the pedestrian safety improvements, we would rather not have at all," he said.

Owen and others pointed to Block E, a McCaffrey project in Minneapolis, to bolster their argument against the developer. The project has been completed, but city officials now say that the developer failed to build to the agreed specifications.

Nan E. Terpak, attorney for McCaffrey, did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

But the proposed changes to the building plans raise another specter, said Tim Wise, a community activist and a member of the Clarendon-Courthouse association.

"Developers are not dumb," he said. "They say, OK, I’ll promise them anything," win county approval, then come back and remove all concessions to the community with site plan amendments.

Owen agreed. "It sure does look that way," he said. "I think in future, a developer may be more cynical in what they offer in the initial site plan," he said. "They may offer more than they’re really planning to give," if McCaffrey’s proposed changes are successful.

It’s especially galling, he said, because McCaffrey got approval for the initial site plan based largely on community support – overcoming a lack of support from county planning commissioners.

"McCaffrey has, perhaps accidentally, found a way to whipsaw the process," he said.

<b>STILL, MCCAFFREY’S</b> requests must go through the County Board, and that means an improvement over the practice of the past, board chair Chris Zimmerman said.

Such changes were made administratively in the past, he said – developers would bring changes to county staff, and could have them enacted without the public process that a County Board decision guarantees.

The county can’t ban such changes, said board member Paul Ferguson, so it has to try to find some common ground between community desires and developer demands.

"You have to keep in mind, the developer owns the property," Ferguson said. "It’s a matter of whether the county and community can have a say." Otherwise, the developer may just develop the land by-right, he said.

But Ferguson and Zimmerman both said they would not be happy with demands from McCaffrey to change the pedestrian improvements at Market Common – a key reason for bringing the development to Clarendon in the first place.

"There were things I made clear I wasn’t willing to negotiate on, like sidewalks and pedestrian areas," Zimmerman said.

In its request to the county, McCaffrey said that without lowering the cost of the pedestrian improvements, it can’t afford to build the project. That’s a typical bargaining tactic, Ferguson said, and he hoped it could be worked out.

But it’s not a flexible issue, Zimmerman said. "It’s pretty central to me, a pretty fundamental part of the area."