Once again, the Fairfax County Planning Commission heard a proposal to put townhouses on land that was originally meant for office buildings near the Vienna/Fairfax Metro station. The developer, Beazer Homes Corp., went before the Commission on June 24 to ask for permission to put a four-story residential building with two stories of underground parking on a site formerly planned for a 10-story office building with an adjacent six-story parking garage. After a 20-minute public hearing, Providence District planning commissioner Ken Lawrence deferred decision to July 14.
When the Metro station first opened in 1986, county planners anticipated a cluster of brand-new office buildings nearby, which could accommodate rail commuters and take cars off the roads. But over the years, only one office building — the one occupied by ICF Consulting — has been built on the south side of the station, near the intersection of Lee Highway and Nutley Street, just off I-66. Several rezonings have placed townhouse and condominium communities near the station, to the dismay of "smart growth" advocates, who would prefer seeing a mixed-use, town-center-type of development near the Metro.
THE LATEST proposal would put 259 housing units on 10 acres at the corner of Nutley Street and Lee Highway. Karen Baker, an attorney for Walsh Colucci representing Beazer Homes Corp., said that the property's owner, Northwest, tried for three years to interest office builders in the site.
"We did try," she said. "We went through the whole shebang of doing it, but in this particular market and at this particular location, it really is not a strong office market compared to other sites."
At the same time, she added, more established areas for office buildings such as Tysons Corner and Reston have had trouble filling office space since the dot-com bubble burst.
The reticence of real estate developers to put an office building on that site took some commissioners by surprise.
"That's a great location between I-66 and Lee Highway and Nutley," said Commission vice-chairman Norman Byers (Mount Vernon). "We couldn't find a better location."
"Well, we wish other folks agreed with you," said Baker.
Lee District Planning Commission’s Rodney Lusk said the county should plan for a return of a strong office market.
"At some point, the office market will be back for the entire county, and I think we're making strides in terms of filling some of the vacant space," he said.
Stuart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said the county has been dealing with "disconnected projects at the station."
"We would have achieved a better mix of uses had the county created a design vision for the Vienna Metro and had they insisted on a good interconnected grid of streets at the Metro," he said.
NEARBY RESIDENTS, however, don't seem to have a problem with replacing office buildings with residential units on the site.
"My homeowners association was thrilled that we weren't going to have a tall office building with six stories of parking adjacent to our properties," said Alexandra Simpson, of the Hunters Branch Townhome Homeowners Association. "We don't want a taller building. We're happy with the smaller building."
But the county's planning staff recommended that the application be turned down, mostly because of the building's footprint, which staffers said was too large.
"Frankly, we're somewhat baffled by staff's denial of this application," Baker said.
The proposal calls for five courtyards and a fenced-in pool for residents. It would also preserve 70 percent of the site, seven acres, as open space.
"We think it's going to be a very attractive residential property," she said.
Lawrence noted that it was not often that the community is in favor of a development application, while staff is opposed to it.
"Providence gives interesting things for us to do," he said, before calling for the deferral.
He said he wanted to work with the developer to ensure that more residents would take the Metro to commute, rather than putting more cars on an already congested road network.
"We are sitting on a transit site, and things are changing very rapidly at transit sites," he said.