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A Nice Fixer Upper

Plan change could see large, mixed use development at Springfield Mall.

Homeowners do it all the time. Buy a house they don't much like in a location they do, then change the house to suit their tastes.

While the plans are not yet finalized, the Springfield Mall could undergo such a renovation. "I think we are looking at a pretty substantial redevelopment that would start with the mall itself," said Doug Koelemay, a spokesperson for Vornado, the mall's soon-to-be-owner. "It's going to be an ambitious plan."

Vornado Realty Trust, a New York-based real estate investment firm, purchased the mall last fall. Since then, speculation has been rampant about what they would do with the 80-acre property. Some of the speculation could end this summer if Vornado submits a proposal to alter the county's Comprehensive Plan. "Vornado is, at this point, at the listening and engagement stage," Koelemay said.

The Comprehensive Plan calls for the site to be developed with a fairly low-density retail use, tapering down to a lower density around the edges.

"How can we take what was once an extremely valuable site to the county, and re-make it?" asked Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee). Kauffman said he expects to begin a community-wide dialogue about how to redevelop the area over the summer.

While Vornado plans to retain retail as the core of the property and doesn't want to take any of the footprint of the mall away, they hope to add other uses. "I think what we're looking at is some additional residential within the existing mall footprint," Koelemay said. They also plan to add some office space and, potentially, a hotel.

THE OVERALL shape of the complex would likely change. Land is too expensive to simply use it for a sea of parking, so surface parking lots may be transformed into parking garages, freeing up the space for more buildings, Koelemay said.

He further said that Vornado was looking at trying to re-form a street grid, to make it easier for people to get through and create more of a "town center" feel. "The Springfield area itself is looking to have more of an urban environment," he said.

That sentiment is shared by at least one resident. "This area is ripe for some urban landscape of mixed use," said Paul Gagnon, co-chair of the Lee District Land Use Committee.

Gagnon said he would really like to see easier pedestrian access to the nearby Joe Alexander Transportation Center, a hub for Metro, VRE and Greyhound Buses. "Pedestrians have a heck of a time getting across [the Franconia-Springfield parkway]," Gagnon said.

Koelemay said that access would be an important part of the project. "That's what makes a mixed-use development work," he said.

People are starting to look for housing options where they can walk to mass transit, particularly empty-nesters and young professionals, said Koelemay. "The age groups are demanding different types of space," he said.

Gagnon also hopes that there will be significant office space in the development. "We really believe office has a market, here," he said. He is also encouraged about the possibility of a hotel, but thinks it would work best if there was substantial meeting space. "The ideal for hotel space would be some kind of convention center," he said.

Not an enormous center, but a place for small conventions, or other events like weddings, he said.

UNLIKE THE controversial MetroWest project, near the Vienna-Fairfax Metro Station, this area is surrounded by existing commercial properties. Without people living next door, Gagnon thinks that it could be easier to put a high intensity development in place. "A large building would not be that much of an impact, especially if it's done right," he said.

Gagnon also hopes to encourage the use of Transportation Demand Management on the site. Transportation Demand Management incorporates into the design of a project strategies to try and reduce the number of vehicle trips a project generates.

These strategies can take many forms, from the developer providing Smartcards to its tenants or developing a shuttle bus route to putting showers in office buildings so people can bike to work.

Gagnon also wants the project to incorporate a phasing plan. Some phasing plans are more restrictive than others, but a typical plan will say that one part of a project cannot be built until certain other requirements are met.

Done properly, a phasing plan helps to ensure that a mixed-use development does not build only the part of the project which has the highest profit margin. "That gives them incentive to complete the whole project," Gagnon said.

Koelemay said the plan right now is short on specifics. Vornado has not determined just how dense they would like the area to become, or how many residential units or how much office space they would like.

Koelemay expects these details to be developed in the next six months to a year. "When you have a chance to create a place, it's fairly exciting," he said.