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Big Day for a Big Project

Residents call for more parks, phasing in MetroWest project during public hearing.

At 1:15 a.m., Bill Cervenak looked up at his image on the big screen hanging over the Fairfax County Board Auditorium “I didn’t look like that when I first got here,” he said, drawing laughs from the tired audience.

Cervenak was one of the last of about 50 speakers at the Fairfax County Planning Commission hearing on the proposed MetroWest development, a large mixed-use project just south of the Vienna/Fairfax-GMU Metro Station.

In December 2004, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved changing the county’s Comprehensive Plan to allow the development on about 56 acres just south of the Vienna/Fairfax-GMU Metro Station. The area had been home to about 65 homes (most have been demolished) that were built in the 1940s and '50s.

The new plan would allow 2,248 townhouses and condos, along with about 100,000 square feet of retail space and 300,000 square feet of office space. Almost the entire development is within a half-mile of the Metro stop.

Since the plan change, the developer, Pulte homes, has been taking the proposal through the rezoning process.

Last week, on Feb. 8, the proposal came to the Planning Commission for a public hearing. More than 125 people were there at the 8:15 p.m. start, although only a handful, and a contingent of county staff, stuck it out until the end, just before 2 a.m.

Aside from Cervenak’s and a few other jokes, the evening was subdued. Although the speakers held sharply different views about the project, the crowd was civil and respectful.

THE DEVELOPMENT has become a test case for growth and development in Fairfax County. Supporters say that urban-style, high-density, mixed use developments near transit stations are the future of the county.

Opponents say they came to Fairfax for a suburban life — a house with a yard on a quiet street. They don’t want to wake up and find an urban-style downtown on the other side of that street.

These kinds of developments, say builders and “smart growth” advocates, can help to reduce traffic, since people can walk to shopping, work and the Metro station.

“This development is part of a regional transportation solution,” said Tim Sampson, an attorney for Pulte.

In this case, the developer is required to meet strict guidelines to reduce the traffic generated by the new homes, stores and offices. The Comprehensive Plan mandates that the developer reduce the number of single occupant car trips generated by residents of new homes by 47 percent, and 25 percent for the office portion.

An outside consultant, UrbanTrans, prepared a study of the development and surrounding area last summer and calculated that it is possible, if everything works just right. However, citizens take issue with many of the underlying assumptions in the report, and with some of its methodologies and conclusions.

Some noted that the proposal allows the developer to build less office space than had been assumed in the consultant’s study. If the assumptions in the study are not built, then how can the results of the study be relevant, they ask.

If the developer does not meet the traffic reduction goals, they will face a financial penalty. But that will be cold comfort, said Jody Bennett of the Vienna area.

“Money will buy you out of reducing the traffic impact. … That is not going to do a thing for the gridlock in this area,” Bennett said.

Sampson argued that the kind of people who move to this development would be the sort who is more likely to use Metro, and that the development will hit its targets. “Many people will move here and self-select here because they want to be close to Metro,” he said.

Sampson also made a preemptive strike against some opponents of the project who have been critical of the opportunity for input into the project. He noted that Pulte has conducted dozens of community meetings, and has a Web site detailing the proposal.

There is a difference, he said, between having an opportunity to make a suggestion and having the suggestion incorporated. "It is not OK to blur the distinction,” Sampson said.

SPEAKERS ON all sides of the debate are difficult to categorize. Many who have long been opposed to the project’s scale found things they like. Other groups that have been supportive of the project had serious concerns. The two common themes were a desire for more park space and for more structure in phasing the residential with office and retail components.

The first two speakers were at opposite sides of the debate around the project.

“MetroWest will lower our quality of life in many ways,” said Mark Tipton. Tipton lives in an adjoining neighborhood and is a member of Fairgrowth, a group long opposed to the size of MetroWest. He said the project would overwhelm the already congested roads, schools and parks.

“We’re looking forward to having this walkable development in our neighborhood,” said Richard Bochner. Bochner lives on the opposite side of I-66 from the proposed development; he was chair of a task force that studied the proposed development.

Many speakers, like Bochner, said they were excited about the development and wanted to see it built soon. “A high density development is essential, with direct access to the Metro station,” said K.C. Hanzgen of Annandale.

Deborah Smith, a nearby resident, was one of several who raised the issue of phasing. The development will not work properly unless all of the various uses are in place. For example, if the retail stores are not built then the residents will need to drive everywhere, reducing the efficacy of the project’s mixed-use nature. Similarly if the office space isn’t built, some integration will be lost.

The project currently calls for the developer to have built six floors of one of the 11 taller buildings before the 500th residential unit can be occupied. They must have completed that first building, and have built six floors of a second taller building before the 1,000th unit can be occupied.

Smith pointed out other nearby developments that have been approved as mixed-use and have not had their office components developed. “The last two developers tried and failed miserably,” she said. “How do we protect ourselves?”

Stewart Schwartz of the coalition for Smarter Growth agreed. His group has been supportive of the project as part of an antidote to the region’s sprawl. But, he noted, it will not work without proper phasing.

“It is important to get this right,” he said. “We do believe the phasing commitments can be stronger.”

These sentiments echoed those of Planning Commissioner Rodney Lusk (Lee). Lusk had worked on those projects Smith referred to and was concerned that this development might go the same route. “The 300,000 square feet [of office space] should be committed to and should be provided,” said Lusk, who was generally supportive of the development. “It’s going to be extremely important.”

“I don’t have a problem with what you are proposing,” said Commissioner Walter Alcorn (At-large) “I just want to make sure you build it.”

The development of various portions of the project cannot be forced, said Frank McDermott, another attorney for the developer. Retailers will not come in until there are a sufficient number of residents. Office space won’t likely fill until the numbers are high enough. And ultimately, it all depends on the swings in the real estate market. The project must finance itself as it goes along and so there must be enough residential units sold to make later portions of the development viable. “There is a point where we need some cash flow,” he said.

PARKS, OR RATHER the lack of them, were the other major sticking point. The project will contain about 20 acres of open space. However, much of it will be in small areas scattered throughout the development, and in some cases on rooftops.

Pulte is proposing construction of a $6 million community building and some sports facilities like a pool and basketball court.

Current residents don’t think that will be enough for the thousands of residents who will be moving in. Russell Ekanger of Vienna Little League calculated that the new residents could result in dozens of additional teams in his league, which already strains to find field space.

The community building is nice, he said, but not enough. “It’s like dropping a dime into a wishing well and saying ‘I just helped reduce the U.S. deficit,’” he said. Ekanger and others suggested Pulte should pay to replace some area fields with artificial turf, which can allow heavier use on the fields.

Commissioner Frank de la Fe (Hunter Mill) said he was also concerned with the lack of fields. “I do believe that off-site, there may be ways … of providing increased use of current athletic facilities,” he said.

McDermott said Pulte might be open to renovating fields, in lieu of building the community building, but he was not open to spending more on parks. “At some point, people on the government side have to decide,” McDermott said. “$6 million out of our pocket is $6 million out of our pocket.”

The Planning Commission deferred its decision to March 15. If approved, the proposal will go to the Board of Supervisors for another public hearing and a final decision.