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Revitalizing Central Springfield

Demolition of blighted buildings paves way for upscale development.

Fairfax County Supervisor Jeff McKay (D-Lee) could not be happier about the destruction going on all around him. And he’s willing to share some responsibility for it.

“Just look at all this,” he said, pointing to a large crane dropping debris into a dumpster on Friday, July 8. “It’s a major step forward.”

The demolition of the long-vacant, graffiti-magnet that used to be a Long John Silver’s restaurant is almost complete. The former chain is one of four blighted buildings in central Springfield that have been torn down in the past 18 months.

“We are setting the stage for positive growth and revitalization projects, “McKay said. “There are potential developers for these properties, but only when these buildings are gone.”

McKay said he started calling property-owners two years ago, asking the absentee landlords what Fairfax County could do to help get rid of buildings.

“It was in everyone’s interest to see these blighted buildings used for more attractive tenants. First, you have to get rid of the ugly,” he said, “and then set the zoning stage properly.”

Nancy-Jo Manney, executive director of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce, said Fairfax County officials have been effective partners in revitalization efforts.

“We’re very happy to see this building come down, along with other eye sores that have been removed in the past year,” she said. “It’s encouraging to have the County work with property owners to make way for some exciting new development in Central Springfield. It’s never a quick process, often much slower than we’d like, but good things are coming.”

Chi-Chi’s, the Mexican restaurant was the first eyesore to be knocked down last winter. The property, next to a Marriott Residence Inn, will soon be a Homewood Suites; and the former Circuit City is now one of the county’s commuter parking lots.

McKay said the County is applying for its third TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants to redevelop the Long John Silver’s site into a structured parking building, with 1,000 spaces for community parking, some retail shops, and recreational fields on the roof for weekend sports teams.

IN JULY, the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced that it will begin accepting applications for $527 million in grants to state and local governments on Aug. 22. The DOT is seeking projects that “foster livable communities and contribute to the county’s competitiveness,” according to the July 1 news release.

“We didn’t get the first two rounds of TIGER grants, but we think we have a good shot at getting money from the third round because we have a creative use for the space, and it’s something that the community needs,” McKay said.

When the old Springfield Plaza shopping center was renovated in 2007, it kick-started some redevelopment along Old Keene Mill Road, considered Springfield’s “main street.” The 260,974-square-foot community shopping center, surrounded by well- established neighborhoods, features 45 stores, including some trendy, urban retail such as a Buy Buy Baby, Trader Joe’s, Iceberry Natural Frozen Yogurt, a Chipotle and a Starbucks.

The center is owned and leased by the Rappaport Companies, known for higher-end mixed-use retail developments in D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia.

“I remember when this shopping center looked like a dump, especially the Giant,” said Springfield resident Janice Martinez, who frequently shops at the Springfield Plaza Giant. “But it’s a good, safe place to shop now, and they keep it looking nice.”

McKay said the people who live in Springfield should be able to shop, eat and play here too. “But for too long, residents have been going to the other side of the county to shop,” he said.

THE DEMOGRAPHICS of central Springfield support the kind of urban retail and streetscape redevelopment that attracts upscale shoppers, McKay said. According to Fairfax County records, about 49,000 vehicles travel Old Keene Mill Road daily, and there’s a population of 108,000 people within a three-mile radius who have an average annual household income of $115,000.

Manney said the Springfield’s comprehensive plan encourages higher- density, taller buildings that front the road, with parking behind.

“There is, and will continue to be, a demand for higher-end retail in this area, and it’s becoming more attractive because of the influx of employees from the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) and the number of transportation options here,” Manney said.

Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT), a specialty office real estate investment trust, is building 240,000 square-feet of office space called Patriot Ridge on the site that was once Pallone Chevrolet on Backlick Road. COPT specializes in serving government and technology customers, such as BRAC employees.

“We develop properties that are typically located adjacent to government-demand drivers in strong markets that we believe possess growth opportunities,” said Derrick Boegner, vice president of asset management and leasing for COPT. “These are technically-sophisticated and environmentally-sensitive buildings.”

“Credit us with not being asleep at the switch during a down economy,” McKay said, “Fairfax County has been paving the way with zoning, so as soon as the economy kicks into high gear, we will be ready to launch.”

But what about the 1.4 million-square-foot ugly elephant in the room known as Springfield Mall?

At a ubiquitous Starbucks on Frontier Drive, across the street from the suburban mall, a 15-foot-high number three is clearly visible to McKay as he sipped his morning coffee.

“I know it’s frustrating. People want to see something happening there, and they’ve been disappointed in the past,” he said.

He added that there is some good news on the way. McKay said that Vornado Realty, which purchased the mall in 2006 for $36 million, according to published reports, will be announcing the first-stage of redevelopment this fall.

“I’ve learned that the first stage is asbestos removal, which is interior work, and then the redevelopment will begin in earnest early in 2012,” he said.

“If you had no retail experience and a blindfold on, you could make Springfield Mall a success,” McKay said. County officials have said the redevelopment of the boxy suburban mall, built in 1973 is the most important project in restoring central Springfield.

McKay said he has no doubts that Vornado is committed to redeveloping the mall. “They’ve already invested $200 million. Target and J.C. Penney were renovated. They are not walking away. It’s going to happen,” he said. Representatives of Vornado could not be reached for comment.