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Beautiful Downtown Merrifield

Developer’s plan would shape one-third of Merrifield Town Center.

Ann Johnson had just heard a 90-minute presentation about a plan to develop a new Merrifield Town Center, and she liked what she heard.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a project so concerned with quality of life issues,” she said. “It’s fun to think of something so special.”

The plan is being proposed by retail developer Edens and Avant and will go on 31 acres. This represents just over a third of the 90-acre area planned to be the Merrifield town center. It was unveiled at a meeting of the Providence District Council on Oct. 10.

Most of the area — 27 acres — is on the current site of the Merrifield Multiplex Cinema at the corner of Lee Highway and Gallows Road. The other four acres are on an adjoining property along Lee Highway.

A NEW THEATER will be constructed on what is currently the theater parking lot furthest away from Lee Highway. Two parking garages will be built on either side of the theater and then the current building will be torn down.

After that, the rest of the development will start to go up. The total development will be about 1.7 million square feet, said Steve Boyle, vice president of development for the mid Atlantic for Edens and Avant. The development will be mixed use, although the ratio of retail space to office space to residential space has yet to be decided.

The current proposals call for a range of 450,000-700,000 square feet of retail, 700,000-900,000 of residential space and 100,000-300,000 square feet of office space. The residential units will likely be about 1,100 square feet each.

The tallest buildings will be about 115 feet tall, with the rest being five-eight stories, Boyle said.

The development will have about two acres of parks and 22-foot wide sidewalks. It will strive to include environmentally friendly elements, such as “green roofs” and landscaped roof gardens, available to the people who will live there.

The complex will have a full-time events coordinator and “art all over,” Boyle said.

“This is something that Merrifield has been longing for for a very long time,” said Bill Caldwell, the project’s architect.

Boyle was enthusiastic about the project. “We want to build something really special,” he said.

He laid out some of the initial costs for land acquisition and preparing the site in the initial phases. His company will need to spend more than $78 million just to get the movie theater repositioned.

The theater must be open before they can start to build the rest of the project, where his company will make their money. “We’re really committed to doing this thing without collecting a dime,” Boyle said. “It’s an endeavor that’s very difficult to make money on.”

THE PROPOSAL SEEKS to realize the vision laid out in the Comprehensive Plan. In 1998, the Board of Supervisors appointed a citizen task force to study Merrifield and develop a series of guidelines for their vision for the Merrifield of the future.

The task force completed its work in 2001.

Part of that was the creation of a “Town Center” on about 90 acres in the southwest corner of Lee Highway and Gallows Road.

The plan calls for a mix of uses in the town center, an urban-style grid of streets and asks for a host of amenities.

“We are meeting all but one,” said Frank McDermott, attorney for Edens and Avant.

The missing component is what is called an “institutional use,” meaning something like a library, museum, government building or church. One of these is recommended somewhere in the town center area.

“That doesn’t mean it has to be in every project,” said Sally Ormsby, a member of the Providence District Council.

Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence), who was not at the meeting, said she thinks it still might be possible for them to fit in an institutional use. She said that the development at the Dunn Loring station will include 500 square feet of office space for the police, and that small space can be considered an institutional use, as well. “It can fit into a ground floor office,” she said.

Increased traffic will be one negative associated with the project. Transportation engineers working for Edens and Avant estimate that the project will generate 2,200 vehicle trips during the evening rush hour. This number already takes into consideration trip reductions the project will likely enjoy by virtue of its mix of uses, such as a couple going to a restaurant before going to see a movie.

The development, at its closest point, is slightly more than a half-mile away from the Dunn Loring Metro station, Caldwell said. As a result, they do not plan to call the project transit-oriented development. They will still try to develop a shuttle bus to go to the Metro station. Boyle said his company would like to donate the seed money for starting the shuttle, and then let passenger fares fund it in the future, but that matter is still under discussion.

The project will find ways to accommodate the additional traffic, said Boyle.

Smyth said she thinks the project has potential, but she would still need to see more specific proposals, such as the number of residential units and more definite square footages for the retail and office space. “Obviously, we’re not going to say, ‘how many tables in the restaurant?’ but I would like to see more definite information,” she said.

Boyle also laid out his timeline for the project. He hopes that the Board of Supervisors will approve the change to the land’s zoning in early 2007. After that, they will need to go through the site plan review process, which they may be able to finish by the end of 2007.

His company has a contractual obligation to have the new theater, which will be a Cinema De Lux similar to the theater in Fairfax Corner, open by November 2009.

After the new theater is open, he can tear down the current theater, meaning construction would not be likely to begin until mid 2010, and buildings will not be open until 2012.

The plan will need to go to the Fairfax County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors for approval before any construction could begin. The project (case number RZ-2005-PR-041) is on the Planning Commission agenda for a public hearing on Jan. 10, 2007, but McDermott thinks it likely that it will be deferred to a later date.