Becky Witsman sees a trend, and she's not sure she likes it. As the director of Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation (SFDC), she is responsible for maintaining the balance of Richmond Highway. She is concerned that the projects that developers are applying for are not in keeping with long-range plans.
“A trend has started, and we are creating a precedent. If we don’t do it right the first time, and don’t get enough commercial space, that’s going to impact whatever people are going to do in the future,” Witsman said.
The trend she is talking about is the building of residential properties with minimal office and retail space. The litmus test right now is The Heights@Groveton Project. As contract owners of the old Groveton School site and principals of Madison Development Partners (MDP), Jon Haas and Darryl Butcher are proposing to rezone the Beacon Hill site from C-3 (office) to PRM (planned residential mixed-use) to allow for a mixed-use development including up to 300 residential units. As of a week ago, their plan only called for 20,000 square feet of office space. However, the Staff Report recently prepared by Fairfax County calls for 50,000 square feet of office space, and SFDC is recommending 70,000.
That difference was reduced when Haas agreed to work with the recommendations of the staff report.
EARLIER THIS WEEK, the Lee District Land Use Advisory Committee met to vote on MDP’s Out of Turn Plan Amendment (OTPA). After over an hour’s worth of discussion, a motion proposed by committee member Dave Amick was passed by a vote of 16-9. That motion said that the committee will approve the OTPA, with the provision that there be a desired goal of 70,000 square feet of office space and a minimum requirement of 50,000 square feet.
“We’re closer, and it will definitely be a major piece of discussion at the board meeting,” Witsman said. SFDC Board members meet tonight, Nov. 18, to vote on the OTPA.
Earlier this month, the SFDC Area Advisory Committee met and voted in favor of the OTPA only if provided for a minimum of 70,000 square feet. Last week, Witsman anticipated that the board vote would go the way of the committee, since many committee members are also board members. She wasn’t sure if this week’s land use meeting would alter their view.
THE MOUNT VERNON-LEE Chamber of Commerce is also calling for a minimum of 70,000 square feet of office space. Last month, the chamber had sent out a survey to its members asking them if they wanted to maintain current zoning or re-zone allow MDP’s current proposal. A portion of their final resolution was read at the land use meeting by Doug Jones, chairman of the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce and SFDC member:
“. . . Whereas, the proposed plan for development of this site calls for a mixture of residential, commercial and retail space with total of 380,000 square feet of new development;
"Therefore, be it resolved that any development on this site should provide for a minimum of 70,000 square feet of office space to satisfy the legal requirements of the property deed and further the economic revitalization of Richmond Highway.”
AFTER THE MEETING, Haas said, “While it’s good that the committee voted in favor of the project, they strapped on the requirement of building additional office space. They’ve taken a thoroughbred and turned it into a camel.”
Haas felt that the staff report had been influenced by SFDC and said, “When the staff report came out, we agonized over it and agreed that we would do our best to live with the staff report.”
Supporting MDP’s original proposal are members of the Groveton Civic Association. At an earlier association meeting, members voted in favor of the original proposal by Madison Development Partners (with 20,000 square feet of office space). Eric Reeder, president of the association, spoke at the land use meeting and said, “We voted 24-7 in favor of this project. We think that it will increase the quality of life and enhance our property value. I’ve gotten really good feedback.”
A Groveton resident said that she didn’t care if they put in any office space; she was just tired of the space being vacant. Several people reported seeing signs of homeless people and unsanitary trash.
A representative from Metrocall said, “We are completely in support of the project. You don’t want a property that is vacant at 5 p.m.; you want people vested in the community. Please keep in mind the people who are looking at it every day — it’s not a pretty situation,” said the representative.
Gagnon backed that up by saying “Vacant properties do tend to attract less desirable elements.”
The Metrocall representative also backed up Haas’ claim of a weak office market by saying that Metrocall had tried to rent one of the floors in their office building and had no offers during the year and a half that they showed it.
WITSMAN IS CONCERNED not only about the limited amount of office space, but also about the density issue. Most of the area around Groveton is R-2, limited to two units per acre. What Madison Development is proposing is almost 65 units per acre, or 30 times as dense as anything around it.
“I’m not sure that Groveton understands what they plan to do there. There’s nothing even close to it,” Witsman said.
“We’re not opposed to the project,” said Stephanie Landrum, SFDC projects coordinator. We have a history of supporting almost every project on the highway, but we are looking for the right balance. This is not unusual — this is usually what we do.”
“At the end of the day, we want to get the best possible project we can get,” Witsman said. “If we don’t try to get it right now, we never will. If there was ever a chance to get it right, now is the time.”
Both Witsman and Landrum have been told in order to attract better retail and restaurants, there has to be a daytime population. Thus, the need for office space. However, Haas has repeatedly said that the office market is dead.
Jim Walton says that if that’s the case, then they should just wait until the market for office space picks up. As president of the Mount Zephyr Civic Association, and member of both the SFDC Area Advisory committee and the Safe Crossings Campaign, Walton has been involved in the project since the beginning. He feels strongly that Haas should honor the original land swap agreement that was made between Fairfax County and Haas’ company, Madison Development Partners (MDP). That agreement allowed MDP to purchase the old Groveton School site for $1 million when they built the South County Center. Hass and his partner, Darryl Butcher, agreed to develop the site as an office building, but are now requesting an out-of-turn-plan amendment to build a mixed-use facility because MDP wasn’t able to attract any clients for the office space.
“I am concerned we will lose opportunity for high-quality office space at a prime location,” Walton said. “Quality office space has been a key ingredient to long-term revitalization efforts along Richmond Highway. I do not think the original agreement could have been worded more strongly for this. It has words such as "buy back" and "sue for performance" to ensure a "Class A" office building. This was critical for both business and community support for the deal. It appears that although the words were serious then, no one is taking them serious now.”
While the Mount Zephyr community is located near the South County Center, and is not adjacent to the new Groveton site, Walton feels that Mount Zephyr will still be impacted, and said, “Revitalization is a long-term effort and requires a mix of residential and commercial improvements. The Richmond Highway area is getting better and will need room for quality office space sometime in the future. If we lose this opportunity for quality office space in a prime location, I fear revitalization will stagnate in the future. This will be bad for everyone.”
Walton plans to continue working to defeat the amendment, saying, “One person cannot effect a change, but a community can. Right now, I think people are only getting one side of the story; hopefully they will told both sides and base their decisions knowing all the information (including all opinions).”
WALTON ALSO had thoughts on another project, saying, “A developer about a mile down the road, with a much more difficult situation and without a land subsidy from the county, plans to build a mixed-use development with 60,000 square foot office space. If that developer believes it can be done, certainly 70,000 square foot in a prime location can also be accomplished. Hopefully, the county will recall the wisdom of their original dream for this location and ensure that intent is still somehow met.”
The project that he was referring to is the Buckman Road Assemblage, a parcel of properties bounded by Buckman Road, Janna Lee Avenue and Richmond Highway. They are under contract and a rezoning application has been submitted for the area. The Board of Supervisors authorized an out-of-turn plan amendment for the area on March 29, 2004, allowing the rezoning to be accepted by the county staff on June 4, 2004. The proposal, to rezone from R-4 and C-8, has been changed from a request for PRM to a request for PDH-30, would allow for up to 400 residential units. The SFDC's Area Advisory Committee heard from John Thillmann, owner of Landmark Communities, about his project, Mount Vernon Gateway, at its November meeting.
“We’re planning to make an extremely high quality project — something different and unique that gives a sense of place and community,” said Thillmann who showed plans containing a gated community with a pond, fountains, formal gardens and playfields. The development will contain 40 percent open space, all of which will be usable. There will be underground parking and retail space fronting Richmond Highway. Thillmann has already contracted with all of the existing home owners and businesses in that tract, except for the owner of the tract at the corner of Richmond Highway and Janna Lee; he said that owner had unreasonable expectations and that he will work around that space. Thillmann said that he has spoken with Supervisors Dana Kauffman and Gerry Hyland and has gotten encouragement from both of them. The existing neighborhood has declined considerably over the years, and this is seen as a real revitalization project.
Thillmann, who thinks that Route One has “real possibilities,” has already completed three smaller projects on Route One. Radford and Talbot Farms are both single-family home developments, while Skyview is a mix of townhouses and single family homes. The Buckman Road project will be the largest in this area, containing 430 residential units. Some of these units will be condominiums, while others will be townhouses.
“It will be a real mix, creating a different ownership and a more interesting community,” said Thillmann, adding that he had already talked to the community and determined they wanted offices with small floor plans. Thus, he will be building office and commercial condominiums to be used by professionals and small business owners, like bakers and coffee shop owners. While Thillmann is not quibbling about providing 60,000 square foot of office space, he is not concerned about the lack of office space.
“You have to utilize market forces to your advantage,” Thillmann said. He believes that there is plenty of space on Route One, and that when more office space is needed that developers will find the space. There needs to be a balance between residential, office and retail, and right now the residential market is strong.
Conversely, when the Reston Town Center was being built, the office market was very strong. Thillmann was the planning commissioner during that period and said that they fought hard to get residential space built. As it turned out, they realized that they were short on residential space after the center was built. They were able to find space for 3,000 more residential units by converting office space and utilizing empty space.
WHILE THE BUCKMAN Road project is in the initial phases, there are other projects that are further along in the process. Witsman said that they’ve already approved the Elcor project, which is a 400-unit residential complex being built in a 150-foot tall building. She said that they supported it because it is adjacent to the Metro. They’ve also approved the Stout & Teague’s mixed-use development on Kings Highway because of the configuration. Built on 60 acres, that development will contain 55 townhouses, 420 low-rise multi-family units, 175 units in a high-rise condominium, 250,000 square foot of office space, 30,000 square foot of retail and a 12-acre city park.
The owners of the Tasos Designs Residential/Retail Building are seeking to rezone the property to the PRM district (Planned Residential Mixed Use) to allow for 24 condominium units with first floor retail space. Witsman said that is a small parcel and will only have 22 residential units. Another project that SFDC is watching closely is the King’s Crossing project. She said that they are still trying to reach consensus on that development, but that is projected to be a PRM development as well.