It's back to the drawing board for developers proposing to erect a massive Giant grocery store on Columbia Pike, which neighbors and county officials hope will someday serve as a catalyst for the transformation of the south Arlington corridor.
Giant, in conjunction with Carbon Thompson Development, had been seeking approval of a 63,000-square-foot store in the Adams Square Shopping Center — twice the size of the current supermarket.
But the project, which also included nearly 300 apartments, retail space and the construction of a portion of a large public square, would have required changes to Columbia Pike's much-lauded form-based code, a set of rigid planning rules the community agreed upon to better expedite development along the street.
After listening to the recommendations of county staff and neighborhood leaders to reject amendments to the code, the County Board agreed that altering those standards would set an unwanted precedent, and result in a shopping center that does not fit the community's vision for what the new Columbia Pike should look like.
"What happens when the next project comes through? Do we make amendments for them?" asked County Board Vice Chair Paul Ferguson during a July 11 meeting. "At some point the form-based code becomes irrelevant."
WHILE REPRESENTATIVES of Giant were not at the meeting, lawyers for the developers said they are open to revising the scope of the project and will resubmit it as part of the regular site plan process through which large projects are vetted.
Board members believe that a rebuilt Adams Square will attract high-quality retailers and help rejuvenate the neighborhood. "We are committed to making [a new grocery store] happen," said County Board member Walter Tejada. "It might take a few months longer, but it's worth waiting."
For months now the project has split Columbia Pike residents and community activists. Over the past decade several grocery stores on the Pike have closed, including a Safeway next door to Adams Square, and residents say that the current supermarket can no longer serve the needs of the surrounding community.
Many who live within walking distance to the Giant travel by car to Bailey's Crossroads to patron larger supermarkets that also house banking services and other amenities.
"We desperately need a better grocery store there," said Roxanne Dzur, who lives behind Adams Square on 9th St. South. "It's such an inferior facility."
Others in the community fear that the proposed store is too large for the space, and heralds the entry of "big-box" stores in Arlington that are synonymous with suburban sprawl and lifeless strip malls. Some worry that the store will undermine the main-street feel that the county is hoping to craft along the Pike.
"Do we have to have a 70,000-square foot Giant, or is the vision for Columbia Pike to have a series of urban grocery stores people can walk to?" Peter Fallon, a member of the Planning Commission, said in a recent interview.
June O'Connell, a long-time civic activist, compared the current situation to the one the county faced when Home Depot wanted to plop a store in the center of Clarendon. While many supported the move at the time because it might spur other development, the board wisely held out for a better project, which resulted in the Market Commons.
The County Board signaled its interest in having a smaller supermarket during last week's meeting. "If it's a little bit smaller — which would still be a big grocery store — we can accomplish some other things, such as second-floor retail," County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman said.
RESIDENTS ARE HOPING that a rebuilt Adams Square will attract upscale retail similar to the stores along Pentagon Row. But an over-sized Giant may jeopardize that goal, and lead to smaller shopping center stores like dry cleaners and coffee shops.
"What the neighborhood is looking for is higher-end shops, and it seems like the developer was thinking of Subway," said John Snyder, president of the Douglas Park Civic Association.
In anticipation of the overhaul of Adams Square, most of its shops have been vacated, creating "a ghost-town feel," said Douglas Duncan, who lives nearby.
If Giant decides against going forward with a site plan process, the owner may have difficulty finding tenants to move back into the open space. Giant has nine years left on its lease, and, to the dismay of neighbors, it could just let the lease run out and not build a new store.
All parties agree that would be the worst-case scenario. If the community, developer and county officials cannot forge a compromise on the supermarket project, other developers may become wary of investing in Columbia Pike, residents said. A revised proposal could come back before the board as early as October.
"If we end up losing this project, it will stump development along the Pike," said Greg Mesack, who lives near the shopping center.