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Developer Presses Mixed Use Vision

Local groups oppose rezoning.

The original Groveton Elementary School on Richmond Highway was built in the 1930s, operated until the 1970s and used as an administrative office for the school system until 1982. When the Fairfax County School Board had no more use for building, it was declared surplus by the School Board, and title was transferred to the Board of Supervisors. The building was demolished, and the property has been vacant since then.

Jon Hass is concerned that it may remain vacant if out-of-turn-plan amendment and rezoning request are not approved by Fairfax County.

These changes would allow for the 4.6-acre site, a square block due south of Beacon Center, to be developed as a mixed-use site (PRM-planned residential mixed-use), instead of as a commercial site (C-3).

“Unless our efforts are successful to rezone the property to a mixed-use project in this economic cycle, in our opinion it is highly likely that the site will remain vacant for many more years to come,” Hass said.

Although his request is already meeting opposition by local groups, including some members of the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce and the Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation (SFDC), he is hoping that a recommendation by the Smart Growth Alliance (SGA) will bring his company, MDP Groveton LLC, more credibility.

The recommendation states, “The proposal on Richmond Highway, The Heights @ Groveton, would create a mixed-use (residential, commercial and retail) redevelopment on a vacant lot across the street from the Beacon Hill Shopping Plaza. It is located 1.5 miles away from the Huntington Metrorail station, with frequent bus service to the station. Parking would be completely surrounded by residential and retail uses, and combined with the proposed sidewalk improvements, [it] would create an inviting experience for the new residents and the surrounding neighborhood.”

HASS WAS PLEASED by the recommendation and said, “It is reassuring to be recognized by such a diversified group as the SGA. Developers have not always found themselves on the same side of an issue with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and many of the other environmentally focused members of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

“The SGA is highly respected by design professionals and public officials. The design and development principles expounded by SGA provide for a responsible approach for the Washington area to accommodate the additional 1,000,000 residents expected to arrive during the next 25 years.

“The SGA is also highly regarded by the national financial institutions and the professional development community. The fact that the Smart Growth Alliance Recognition Program selected the Heights @ Groveton project as exemplary will provide advantages in attracting debt and equity capital to this exciting project in the dynamically improving Richmond Highway Corridor.”

THE OPPOSITION to the project arises from the fact that Hass and his partner, Darryl Butcher, agreed to develop the site as an office building. They acquired the property when the county transferred it to Madison Development Partners as part of a deal to build the South County Government Center on Richmond Highway. Hass said that they had all intentions of keeping with the original deal, but years of marketing to attract a prospective client proved to be unfruitful.

“During August of 1998, when we submitted our response to the South County Center ‘Request for Proposals,’ Metrocall was very interested in additional office space. During the year and a half that it took to be selected and to negotiate a development agreement, Metrocall filled their space needs in other locations. Our office space marketing effort continues from that time until this day, with no serious interest. If a lead office tenant is identified tomorrow, we could move forward with a by-right office development, so we continue to search the market for office tenants,” said Hass, who still expects that the mixed-use Heights @ Groveton will include a “meaningful office component.” Hass believes that once such a project is developed, commercial tenants would be attracted to it.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, agrees and said, “If you can create well-designed mixed-use developments, then you start to attract professional office tenants.”

The mixed-use concept — which is composed mostly of multifamily residential units, with some retail and office space — is getting a lot of attention lately. Both Bethesda Row in Bethesda, Md., and Misner Park in Boca Raton, Fla., are two examples of mixed-use developments. In addition to the proposed Heights @ Groveton, two other developers, Landmark Property Development LLC and Anastasio Grypeos are trying to get PRM zoning for two different pieces of property on Richmond Highway. The first is a 15.75-acre site bounded by Buckman Road, Richmond Highway and Janna Lee Avenue; the latter is a 1.23-acre site between Preston and East Lee avenues on Richmond Highway.

HASS AND BUTCHER are prepared to pay out of pocket for the up-front costs, all the time knowing that their requests could be denied: “We believe that our mixed-use design makes a lot of sense in bringing about continued revitalization of the Richmond Highway Corridor, an effort that I have been committed to since the early 1980s. We only tackle one major development at a time and tend to gravitate to difficult opportunities overlooked by major institutional developers and which are too large for smaller developers. That way we can devote our full energies to bringing a project to successful fruition.”

“There is a huge demand from people for greater walkability,” Schwartz said. “People want a sense of place and a sense of community. This is a win-win situation — you reduce scattered sprawl and revitalize Route 1.”

While a draft of a letter by the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber opposing the project was inadvertently printed, Dan Rinzel, president of the Chamber, said, “We have not yet taken a final position on the matter.” He said that the chamber plans to address it at the Sept. 15 executive board meeting. At that time, it will consider the recommendation made by the chamber’s Business and Community Development Committee. If the executive board decides to oppose the development, then they would proceed to send a letter to the Board of Supervisors, and/or be present at the hearings in December.

Tom Harvey, who chairs the Business Committee, said that they had planned to address it this month, but “the chamber's August board meeting was canceled due to so many board members being out of town. We therefore did not have the opportunity to address the Groveton Heights plan amendment. I would imagine that we will discuss it at the September board meeting.”

He did not want to speak for the committee but is inclined to think that the matter is so important that it should be passed by the entire membership, not just the executive board. If his committee does recommend this, it would be a recommendation only and would still have to be approved by the executive board.

“I feel it’s a big issue that affects a lot of people,” Harvey said.

MEMBERS OF THE SOUTHEAST Fairfax Development Corporation (SFDC) have also expressed concern. Rick Neel, who serves as president of the board, said, “The old Groveton School site is one of those strategic locations long deemed important to economic revitalization efforts, and thus I will be paying close attention to that site.”

Neel said that his personal viewpoint regarding land-use issues on Richmond Highway has not been changed by the recommendation of the SGA.

“Through a number of years of intense involvement in economic revitalization issues, I have received a great education about what makes sense for Richmond Highway. My best teachers have been the numerous residents with whom I've spoken about their hopes and dreams for the corridor, the highway property owners who have shared their challenges, and the land-use planners and development professionals who are most familiar with the unique development factors on Richmond Highway,” Neel said.

“Richmond Highway has proven to be a great investment in recent years. I am confident that we will continue to see great things happen on our ‘main street’ in the coming years so long as our various stakeholders continue to work together to achieve our shared vision,” he continued.

Neel said that the SFDC looks forward to playing its traditional role of helping to “achieve community consensus on development projects through the public process.” SFDC meetings are open to the public, and Neel encourages interested citizens to attend these meetings and participate in the upcoming discussions. To find out more about those meetings and to be added to their meeting notification list, call the SFDC office at 703-360-5008

“We shared an excellent relationship with SFDC during the development of the South County Center and expect that relationship to continue. Even though some members of SFDC’s board prefer 100-percent office use for the Groveton site, other board members have expressed their support for The Heights @ Groveton. Current and projected economics do not suggest that office construction will be feasible in this location in the foreseeable future. In our opinion, mixed use is the only viable development alternative for the site other than straight retail or residential. A single-use project would lack the vitality of a 24-7 mixed-use project that would be inviting and participatory for the community to use as a gathering place,” Hass said.

The current status of the project is that MDP’s rezoning application has been accepted by Fairfax County and an out-of-turn-plan-amendment (OTPA) process is under way.

“It is estimated that OTPA hearing dates will be scheduled before the Planning Commission in November and before the Board of Supervisors in December. If all goes well, it is expected that hearing dates will be set for the rezoning in January and February 2005,” Hass said.

“It is impossible to predict with certainty the length of this process. However, to successfully achieve zoning, it is estimated to take nearly a year from April 2004 when we submitted our rezoning application. Next, completion of design and construction drawings and documents will require another 10 months. Plan review and permitting is estimated to require an additional five months. If all goes well, we will be able to start construction during the second quarter 2006. From that point, it will take about 18 months to construct Groveton Heights. Completion is estimated to be fourth quarter 2007.”