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Sustaining Richmond Highway's Forward Momemtum

SFDC gets new director and Mount Vernon Plaza prepares to open.

Work on Mount Vernon Plaza is moving along and Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation (SFDC) has a new executive director.

Richmond Highway continues to be a bustle of activity as workers at Mount Vernon Plaza strive to meet their schedule. At the beginning of October, 2004, Emily Groome, development manager with Federal Realty Investment Trust, announced at a luncheon with Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce members that Mount Vernon Plaza’s flagship stores, PETsMART, Michael’s and Bed, Bath & Beyond, would open a year from then — October, 2005. However, at last week’s Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation's Area Advisory Committee meeting, she indicated that things were on schedule and possibly even ahead of schedule. Both PETsMART and Bed, Bath & Beyond are hoping to open in August and Michael’s is scheduled to open in September

Already in place are the façade changes for some of the existing areas containing Blockbusters, Duron and Papa Johns.

Groome and Lynne Stroebel came to the advisory meeting to present a request for a special exception. All involve signage changes. The first requests that signage be placed on both sides of stores in the "pad." The “pad” (individual) buildings will be located behind the new Wachovia Bank, formerly Roy Rogers, and the IHOP. It will have a pedestrian walkway between the stores. Since both sides will be exposed, they want signage on both sides. Contracts have already been signed with Five Below, Nextel and Fort Belvoir Credit Union. GNC and a nail salon are relocating to the new space and Federal Realty is finalizing contracts with other businesses.

The second request asks for a height waiver on the new shopping center sign. The existing pylon sign is 32 feet, and they would like to replace it with a modern sign measuring 29.4 feet. Under the current Fairfax County code, signs are only allowed to be 20 feet high. Stroebel is concerned that if the sign is not high enough that there will not be enough visibility.

The final request is for a height waiver for the sign in front of the new Staples which will be located in the space formerly occupied by Frank’s Nursery & Crafts. Because the store has so little visibility from the street, they have requested a sign that is larger than code to increase the visibility.

After Stroebel and Groome presented their case, SFDC board members unanimously voted to approve the changes, and Tom Collins, board member, summed up what was on all their minds, by saying, “I think it’s in our interest to make the shopping center a success.”

Fritts later said, “The excitement and energy is building. Federal Realty has really put us on the map.”

WITH HER FIRST advisory committee meeting under her belt, Fritts can mark off another first. She’s already had her first meeting with the board members and her first of many meetings with Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland. She is scheduled to meet this week with Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman. She also has a meeting today with the Richmond Highway Design Review Committee Meeting to review the status of existing grants and applications for façade improvement.

Although Fritts has been in her position a little over a month, she has become knowledgeable about the major projects on Richmond Highway.

“I have a phenomenal board,” Fritts said. "Rick [Neel] has spent a countless number of hours bringing me up to speed."

Neel is the president of SFDC's Board of Directors, and said, "We are pleased to have Fritts as the executive director. She brings tremendous skills and expertise to her role as chief officer. She has devoted a good part of her career to commercial revitalization and that will be a big advantage for her. She is a great addition to the SFDC team, and I look forward to working with her to make progress on Richmond Highway."

Neel said that Fritts is approaching her assignment in a very systematic way; she is meeting with every board member to see what they want to do. Based on these findings, she will then prepare a program of action for the organization. He said that she is also meeting with developers and local elected officials.

"She's making sure that the work of SFDC continues its pace," Neel said. "A lot of great things are happening on Richmond Highway. Mount Vernon Plaza is moving along and Hybla Valley Veterinarian Hospital is working on their façade change."

Fritts said, “It’s a race that’s been started and I’m trying to jump in.” She has been talking to brokers and developers promoting the highway and discussing opportunities for redevelopment. She is also looking at SFDC’s marketing plan to determine what needs to be done.

ADMINISTRATIVELY, she has already made a few changes. She added voicemail and changed the email accounts. Fritts is not necessarily technologically savvy, but because of her prior positions with the Technology Council of Maryland, Washington D.C. Technology Council and Aspen Systems Corporation, she has many friends with technical expertise who have been willing to help.

Those positions were a hiatus from what she excelled in and did most of her career — economic development. All of her training and expertise is in that area, but after she left her job with the Greater Rockville Partnership, she wanted to try something different. After being away from economic development for a few years, however, she realized how much she missed it.

When she saw the position for SFDC’s executive director, she applied and was invited to meet with the interview committee.

“I was blown away with their enthusiasm,” Fritts said. “The job mirrored what I had done in Rockville — it was a perfect fit.”

Sy Berdux, who was on the interview committee, said, “She was positive, exuberant, and enthusiastic, plus she had a proven track record in Rockville and other areas. We liked her overall approach to what the job required and her positive thoughts on what could be accomplished to move forward with economic development and revitalization.”

As a former SFDC president for six years, Berdux is very involved with SFDC, and would like to see the organization continue to move forward. He is pleased that they are seeing the culmination of things approved in 1997 and 1998.

“I would like to see the improvements continue on Richmond Highway and SFDC continue to support them,” he said.

FRITTS SPOKE about the impact of BRAC, saying, “It’s going to change the look and change the feel of Richmond Highway.”

She and SFDC board members support the BRAC recommendations and Neel presented a letter to the July 7 BRAC Commission Regional Hearing for the Commonwealth of Virginia, stating, in part, “... The SFDC sees the BRAC recommendations for Fort Belvoir as also offering an excellent opportunity to realize our local goal of attracting new office development on the Richmond Highway corridor. Defense contractors seeking to locate near the post could help to provide a much needed daytime office population on Richmond Highway essential for this older commercial corridor’s long-term economic health. Our local elected officials, Fairfax County Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland and Dana Kauffman, welcome the proposed relocation of Defense personnel to Fort Belvoir and are already actively engaged in addressing the significant issues that necessarily accompany a relocation of this magnitude.”

Fritts is well aware of some of the controversy over the two mixed-use-projects — The Heights at Groveton and Kings Crossing. Her view is that “balanced growth is critical.”

From a county’s point of view, commercial properties don’t demand as much services as residential, but from a developer’s perspective, it takes longer to get a return on their money with commercial property.

Fritts would like to increase the commercial base so that it offloads the burden from the residents. In the future, Fritts would like to be less reactive and more selective in working with developers.

Fritts has not yet hired a permanent project coordinator, but Frank Holub has been acting in that position since March. Holub has lived on the corridor for 31 years, and said, “If we improve the highway, we improve the neighborhood. We have to take our place in the county. For the longest time, people have spent the night here but commuted to the western part of the county — we need to improve that. We need to be a part of today’s world.”

Holub believes that transportation is a key issue, with a location so close to Washington.