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Votes

How Much on Richmond Highway?

County planners, area citizens differ on density recommendation for northern end of Route 1.

How many million square feet of office space should go at the northern end of Richmond Highway? Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning staff thinks there should be no more than 744,000 square feet, while area citizens and The Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation would prefer 2.3 million.

The proposal for change, initiated by Rick Neel of the corporation came as part of Fairfax County’s review of its Comprehensive Plan. According to state law, every locality must review its plan every five years. Fairfax’s does this through the Area Plans Review process. Beginning last year, residents, developers and property owners in the Springfield, Mount Vernon, Mason, Lee and Braddock magisterial districts could submit proposals, known as nominations, to change the plan. There are no restrictions on what can be suggested.

The proposals are then analyzed by the county’s Department of Planning and Zoning and a citizen task force. Often, proposals which are opposed by either county staff or the community are withdrawn. Those that are not go to the Planning Commission for a public hearing. Proposals rejected by the Planning Commission stop there. Proposals accepted by the commission go to the Board of Supervisors for an additional public hearing and final decision.

Neel’s plan concerns about 18 acres along the northern edge of Richmond Highway. The area is already developed, and the Comprehensive Plan calls for redevelopment with a mix of uses. Neel’s proposal would remove the text which would encourage residential development in the area.

He reasoned that the area, bounded by several major highways, would be too noisy for residential development. His proposal suggested removing and encouraging redevelopment, but did not suggest an upper limit to the density that should be allowed.

County staff agreed with the proposal to remove the residential component, but said that the level of density should be at a Floor-to-Area ratio of 1.0, which corresponds to the 744,000 square feet of space.

However, a citizen task force which studied the proposal concluded that redevelopment should be allowed a floor-to-area ratio of 3.0, which corresponds to 2.3 million square feet.

The higher density level would result in too much new traffic and would overwhelm the surrounding road network, said Meghan Van Dam, of the Department of Planning and Zoning.

The citizens argued that the higher density, and the higher profits that come with it, are necessary. “The county, if it wishes to encourage the redevelopment of these sites … will need to provide an economic incentive,” said Neel.

Planning Commissioner John Byers (Mount Vernon) said he was comfortable with the density proposed by the citizens. However, he would prefer some mixed-use development which would include some residential development. “I want to be careful about building another Rosslyn,” he said.

Commissioner Walter Alcorn (at large) said he had some concerns about approving the level of density recommended by the citizens. The density suggested would be higher than that currently permitted in Tysons Corner, or anywhere else in Fairfax County. He further noted that the area is more than a half-mile from the nearest metro station, the maximum distance generally accepted for intense levels of development. “I don’t know if there’s been enough thought put into that proposal,” Alcorn said.

Byers suggested that the market would dictate the ultimate level of density built on the property.

“But the market won’t determine how I vote,” Alcorn replied.

William Fetsch, who owns property in the area, also said that a mixed use development would be appropriate.

Commissioner Janet Hall (Mason) asked Fetsch, as a developer and property owner, what he would consider an appropriate level of density. Fetsch said that if a developer was able to consolidate all the land, and present a high-quality development which would mitigate impacts, that the development could go as high as 1.5-1.9 million square feet of space. “but it would have to be a very special project,” he said.

As is standard in Area Plans Review cases, the Planning Commission deferred its decision to allow for additional time to study the nominations and to hear from the community.

The commission will hold a “mark-up” session where it will discuss and decide on this, and all of the other nominations in all of the districts on July 26.