Five years after he asked McLean residents to “blue sky” their town to imagine how it could look and function better, Dranesville Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (R) last week invited them to a town meeting to review their progress.
In 1997, concurrent with renovation of the Giant shopping center on Chain Bridge Road, it was a good time to take stock, Mendelsohn said.
Citizens met for hours to dream up ideas about what to do, and a Bethesda architect and planner, John Westbrook, submitted a design.
Its central feature was creation of a new, pedestrian-friendly “main street” parallel to Old Dominion Drive with an extended stay hotel at one end, Beverly Road, and a “civic place” at the other, Laughlin Avenue.
Westbrook’s suggestions also included a “roundabout” at McLean’s congested central intersection, Old Dominion Drive and Chain Bridge Road. At the same intersection, there would be office buildings instead of two gas stations.
He addressed lighting, the “streetscape” including underground utilities and using brick pavers at intersections.
Ideas for attractive trash cans, landscaping, and street signs were built into the plan to give McLean “a sense of place.”
Mendelsohn reactivated the McLean Planning Committee (MPC), a group of 16 volunteers members representing four groups: landowners, homeowners, businesses, and a citizens group, to work out details of plan.
The McLean Revitalization Corporation (MRC) was formed as a business entity to support the changes.
At the county level, McLean was identified for revitalization, making it eligible for funds and support. In 1998, the major tenets of Westbrook’s plan were added to the county’s Comprehensive Plan.
Now, five years later, the “anchor” exists at the west end of the proposed main street. The other anchor, a 59-unit mix of residential, commercial and retail structure at Civic Place, is weeks away from construction.
“The heart of the plan is Main Street,” Mendelsohn said. “There’s no question the two anchors are important.”
In a recent survey of 500 constituents, Mendelsohn said, almost two-thirds said downtown McLean has improved. Only five percent said revitalization detracted from McLean, while 35 observed no change.
“Revitalization of McLean has been one of my biggest achievements,” he said. “This was one where I came up with the whole idea, sold it to the community, and led the visioning.
“Most people who have been here a long time think McLean has been ugly, and we are starting to improve it. Anecdotally, I get overwhelming support for what is going on in McLean. We have gained a lot of momentum,” he said.
BUT EVEN WITH overwhelming support, the dramatic changes proposed for McLean produce differences in view.
“It seems to me we differ on the meaning of revitalization,” said Adrienne Whyte, chairman of the McLean Citizen Association’s (MCA) planning and zoning committee.
“Turning McLean into a quaint little village is something it’s not.
Many of us do our life management in downtown McLean. We rely on the businesses,” she said.
“We need services and beauty, too,” said Deegee Watling. “I think you can have them both.”
Proposed changes to the Exxon and Amoco stations brought forth differences in opinion about the value of the service bays that would be eliminated in favor of a car wash and an upscale sandwich shop as those two businesses propose their own version of change.
The roundabout, a circle where traffic would flow continuously among five streets that intersect at Old Dominion and Chain Bridge,
has been contentious.
Last June, as part of the regular review of the Comprehensive Plan, former Dranesville Supervisor Lilla Richards suggested that both the roundabout and an expanded Civic Place park be removed.
“Some little people are going to get killed, like me,” said Lorna Gladstone at Mendelsohn’s town meeting last week.
Steve Salzer of West Lewinsville Hills Citizens Association, called it “the roundabout that will not die.”
“Whoever keeps it alive just keeps noodling it along we have to keep coming back and talk about it,” he said. “It’s a horrific waste of your time, and a waste of public funds. There is not a single voice from my association [that is] in favor.”
OTHERS DISAGREE. “I support the roundabout,” said Caroline Pickens. Bruce Bennett, a member of the Hunter Mill Defense League, who supports a roundabout at the intersection of Hunter Mill and Sunset Hills Roads in Reston, defended the idea, saying he’s interviewed city managers in Las Vegas and Nashville who say roundabouts work in their cities.
“Let’s get on to real problems, like the post office, traffic on Elm Street, and traffic on Beverly Road,” said Tom Moore of the MCA.
Jack Wilbern, an architect who’s been involved from the start, says any decision on a roundabout won’t be made for years. “It’s an open, still-to-be decided issue,” he said.
“Even if we approved it, it’s a long way off,” said Mendelsohn. “We are gong to finish the study and put the facts out to the community.
Later, he said has mixed emotions about the roundabout.
“I didn’t want to get into it until much later in revitalization,” he said. “I don’t think most people have looked at it yet. There’s no question it would improve the aesthetics. I am not sure it would improve the operation, as the consultants claim it will,” he said.