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On Utilitarianism — And Beauty

Old shopping center turns from ugly duckling to swan.

One of the crown jewels of the Route 1 revitalization effort has been recognized by the Community Appearance Alliance of Northern Virginia for "enhancing the visual quality" of the region.

Mount Vernon Plaza/South Valley Shopping Center at the intersection of Route 1 and Fordson Road was presented a special award by the Northern Virginia Regional Commission Jan. 12. Redevelopment of the center has been undertaken by its owners, Federal Realty Investment Trust of Rockville, Md.

Located within Lee District on the west side of Route 1, the project had been nominated for recognition by Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman. "Federal Realty has done an amazing job turning an underutilized center into a community treasure," Kauffman said.

"The new South Valley Center is inviting, attractive, safe and includes the type of tenants I have worked long and hard to get to invest in the Route 1 corridor," Kauffman said. "This project is one of many that will improve the community appearance of the highway and I thank the commission for recognizing this center."

Commission awards are granted for design and construction projects, collaborative efforts and to community associations for outstanding contributions that enhance the visual quality of Northern Virginia, according to G. Mark Gibbs, Alliance president, who presented the award to Federal Realty representatives during a ceremony at the commission headquarters in Fairfax City.

"We are really grateful for this award. When you see the before and after pictures of the center, it's amazing how much it has changed," said Emily Groome, development manager at Federal Realty.

"We anticipate a grand opening of the entire revitalized center near the end of April. Various stores have been opening as they are completed," Groome said.

Federal Realty owns the South Valley Center and holds a ground lease on Mount Vernon Plaza, according to Groome. The two centers, which have now been combined into a single entity under the name of Mount Vernon Plaza, cover about 18 acres.

ORIGINALLY, the entire central area of the two centers was one large parking lot with various commercial enterprises around the perimeter. Under the redesign some commercial/retail entities have now been placed in that central area.

"We did our own parking analysis and found there was far more parking than necessary. This enabled us to add more commercial space," Groome said.

Representing Kauffman at the award ceremony was Jeff McKay, his chief of staff. "I can remember going to this shopping center as a kid. It used to be a center that drew tons of customers. Then, in the '90s it fell on hard times, lost key tenants, and generally turned into an empty sea of asphalt," he said.

"Our office worked hard with Federal Realty, encouraging them to first buy the center and then upgrade it. Since Federal Realty has taken ownership, the center has been totally rehabilitated, landscaping has been added, new quality anchor tenants have come, new buildings have been built, and finally the center is pedestrian friendly," McKay said.

"This center is again an asset to the local Route 1 community and a key part of our on-going Route 1 revitalization efforts. We are so appreciative that the Northern Virginia Regional Commission recognized the work done by Federal Realty. We hope this project sets a precedent for other property owners on the highway," he said.

Founded in 1987, the Community Appearance Alliance, a non-profit organization sponsored by the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, promotes community beautification. Its members include architects, planners, Realtors, real estate developers, and citizen activists. The award to Federal Realty for Mount Vernon Plaza was one of eight 2005 awards distributed by the Alliance.