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Walking to Merrifield Town Center

Pedestrian access necessary for community support of town center project.

Auto repair shops, gas stations, warehouses and martial arts studios are the types of businesses sprinkled around the Merrifield area. Central to those businesses is a movie theater near the corner of Lee Highway and Gallows Road, but that could soon change.

“We’re dealing here with a site described as a suburban town center with an urban center,” said Steve Boyle, vice president of development in the Mid-Atlantic region with Edens and Avant. The company is proposing to build a 31-acre development on the property where the movie theater currently stands. The development would serve as the urban center to a 90-acre Merrifield Town Center, as outlined in the guidelines created by a task force that completed its study in 2001 on the Merrifield of the future. The development would bring roughly 1.75 million square feet of mixed-use space to the area, including 600,000 square feet of retail space and 800,000 square feet of residential space. There would also be 150,000 square feet of office space, a 14-screen cinema and as many as two hotels on the site.

Boyle and other members of the Edens and Avant team met with Merrifield residents on Monday night to discuss the features of the proposed development, slated to go before the Fairfax County Planning Commission in May. The residents expressed a variety of concerns, but for the most part wanted to ensure there would be pedestrian access to the center. Tamela Lathan said the developer could garner community support if it builds adequate pedestrian walkways to access the center. “It will do a lot to revitalize this area, giving us a sense of place,” she said about the project.

Boyle said the only way for Edens and Avant to improve the project is to hear from the people living near the proposed center. “A lot of people want to be able to walk to this one,” he said. According to Frank McDermott, attorney for Edens and Avant, Fairfax County hired a consultant to study pedestrian connectivity in the Merrifield area. The area’s comprehensive plan calls for all of the land between the proposed development and Dunn Loring metro station — roughly a half-mile away from the project site — to be pedestrian friendly.

As far as the area within the development is concerned, Boyle said it is a pedestrian friendly project, which concentrates on placing the retail space on the ground floor. “The entire pedestrian experience will be retail,” said Boyle. He added that he wanted people to feel comfortable and engaged by the experience of walking five to six football fields worth of retail stores. Boyle also said that the parking on the property is under ground. “There’s parking under everything. I want this to be a big pedestrian area,” said Boyle. He said it was a challenge to propose such a development, which would lie in the shadows of the nation’s 10th largest shopping center, the Tysons Corner Shopping Center.

IN THE MIDST of the newly constructed buildings, the project also hopes to develop three parks on the property. Named North Park, South Park and East Park, the spaces are one acre, a half of an acre and 8,000 square feet respectively. “It’s just a great community gathering place. It’s a place to just be,” said Boyle. He added that the parks constitute a project that takes a life of its own after it is built, because events such as the farmers market, the Taste of Merrifield and open space concerts could be held there. “If I screw up the parks, everything else fails,” said Boyle.

Edens and Avant also promises the development would be environment-friendly, featuring green roofs and advanced systems of controlled water detention. “We will be more pervious after we build this center than we are now. That’s a fact,” said Boyle.

According to architect Bill Caldwell, the two tallest buildings in the development would be 115 feet tall. The development would feature an urban-style gridlock of streets. McDermott said that eight percent of the residential units would be set aside as affordable and workforce units.

The development has to gain approval from the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors before any building can begin. According to Boyle’s timeline, the proposal may come before the Board of Supervisors in June. If it is approved, Edens and Avant hopes to begin building the first phase of the project in July 2008. The company hopes to open the new movie theater by November 2009, when it can start building the second phase of the project. It hopes to complete the entire project by October 2013.

Becky Cate, chair of the Land Use Committee for the Providence District Council, said the proposal could help revitalize the Merrifield area with the introduction of a lot of new retail space. However, she said she is concerned about the traffic this and other proposals in the Merrifield area may generate. She said any new developments in the area should be safe for bicyclists and pedestrian friendly. “We need to build a community down here that will get people out of their cars,” said Cate.