‘A World-Class Place to Live, Work, Dine’

‘A World-Class Place to Live, Work, Dine’

Fairfax Circle Plaza will be redeveloped.

Artist’s rendition of one of the mixed-use buildings planned for Fairfax Boulevard. Shops and restaurants are at street level, with apartments above.

Artist’s rendition of one of the mixed-use buildings planned for Fairfax Boulevard. Shops and restaurants are at street level, with apartments above.

The Fairfax City Council has taken the first step toward revitalizing the Fairfax Circle Plaza. At its May 27 meeting, the Council approved a huge, new, mixed-use project there, entailing a grocery store, retail businesses and multifamily housing.

However, it wasn’t without controversy, nor was it entirely what the Council members envisioned for that site. But in the end, they decided it was better to go ahead with some sort of improvement than to stagnate in the present.

"It’ll attract business and revenue to the City," said Councilman Dan Drummond. "This is about retrofitting Fairfax Boulevard and turning a 1960s shopping center into a world-class place for people to live, work and dine. Our City is at a crossroads – it can create a new generation of businesses, or stand still and do nothing. But we want to keep the City moving forward."

Combined Properties Ltd. needs Fairfax’s permission to redevelop the 9.8-acre Fairfax Circle Plaza shopping center with a 54,000-square-foot grocery store, 34,000 square feet of retail and restaurants and 400 apartments. It also proposes a signalized intersection at Fairfax Boulevard.

City staff recommended approval, with conditions including signage and lighting limits, investigating the project’s impacts on local parks and schools, and exploring a possible "green" roof for the grocery store. But, said Fairfax City Planner Eric Forman, "The proposed rents don’t really qualify as affordable housing. They’re not reduced enough to make them ‘affordable’ and we don’t want additional fees tacked onto [them]."

Attorney Mark Looney, representing the applicant, said the 2010 census showed the City’s highest population is age 20-24, with a higher concentration of people over 50. "There’s a lower concentration of people ages 25-50," he said. "Your housing stock’s outdated, 60 percent of householders under 35 are renters, and 38 percent of renters live alone or have roommates and no kids. And you’d like them to stay and live [here]."

COMPARED TO OTHER nearby jurisdictions, he said, "You have a relatively small number of high-density apartments. People want walk-in closets, 9-foot ceilings and fitness centers in their apartments and condos, and your apartments only have a small number of these things."

"So we’d like to add to your commercial base by adding to your housing stock an opportunity to attract these residents you don’t now have," said Looney. "And they have a higher amount of disposable income."

Currently, he said, Fairfax Circle Plaza is "an old, strip shopping center needing improvement. It’s a gateway into the City, but needs newer, more exciting retail than it has now." Also helpful, said Looney, would be modern, residential units in a walkable design, with structured parking, instead of surface, and better stormwater management.

He said most of the leases there run out in 2015, and "then the owner could immediately begin work on a redevelopment," depending on the market and financing."

Looney also noted that, although Harris Teeter hasn’t yet committed to being the grocery store, "all the design changes we’ve made, we’ve done at [its] behest. Harris Teeter doesn’t sign leases until zoning approvals are in place, but we have every intention of making them a reality here."

Councilman Michael DeMarco asked about options for existing commercial tenants to go into the new project or relocate elsewhere. "One tenant wants to go to the Pickett Shopping Center," said Looney. "Some others we’d like to keep."

Councilwoman Ellie Schmidt asked if the project would be phased and Looney replied, "Phases in quick succession – residential building construction concurrent with a phased occupancy. The grocery-store site must be turned over to the store prior to any residents moving in."

He said fire-suppressant and noise-resistant materials would go between floors of the residential buildings. Residents’ guests would park in the mixed, residential and retail spaces on the parking garages’ lower floors, with residents parking on the top of both garages.

But not everyone was happy with the proposal. "I would have liked to have seen more retail, and I encourage you to think about it," said Schmidt. And Layton Hall resident Rachel Ledbetter said the proposed apartment rents are too high.

She noted that, at 60 percent of someone’s average median income (AMI), rent plus fees would be $1,700/month for a one-bedroom in the facility, when it should really be $1,071, according to the City’s Comprehensive Plan for affordable housing. Similarly, at 70 percent AMI, a two-bedroom would cost $2,160/month when the City says it should be $1,404.

As a young professional, said Ledbetter, if she didn’t live in affordable housing, she couldn’t live in Fairfax. So regarding the new apartments, she said, "It’s a shame the blue-collar workers who’ll provide the [retail] services there won’t be able to afford to live there."

Dorothy Sorrell, who headed the City’s Housing Affordability Work Group, also decried the apparent lack of "affordable" housing in the applicant’s plan. "The standard is 25 percent of income if utilities are included and 30 percent, if not," she said. "We don’t know what all the fees will be, yet, and the developer hasn’t discussed affordability in the event of a condo conversion."

Furthermore, asked Sorrell, "If 40 percent of the complex is two-bedroom, will 40 percent of the affordable housing be two-bedroom? The Council should affirm its commitment to affordable housing – to do less would mean we’re not following the City’s amendment to the Comprehensive Plan. Did we waste our time?"

Agreeing, resident Betsy Bicknell said, "This would provide an inappropriate precedent for the development of other affordable-housing projects in the City."

But, said Drummond, "The community wanted a vibrant, walkable destination with amenities; we have the chance to make it a reality. This project isn’t perfect – and I’m disappointed in the affordable housing and amount of retail – but I have to look at it in its totality. And we’re building the residential market that’ll attract businesses like at Mosaic and Fairfax Corner."

Schmidt said the City has an opportunity to "revitalize an aging shopping center at the Fairfax’s gateway and make it better. But I’m concerned about losing commercial square footage we won’t get back."

Councilman Steve Stombres said this project has "legitimate concerns" but, "At some point, we have to stop talking and start building. If we don’t continually invest in the City, it starts to deteriorate. This improves what’s there and is a catalyst for further development. This doesn’t represent affordable-housing progress; but I believe, going forward, we’ll improve."

THE COUNCIL approved the project, 5-1, with Schmidt voting no. But before it did, Councilman David Meyer explained its importance. While also unhappy about its affordable-housing, he said, "Our largest cost as a community is educating our students, and those costs are skyrocketing, as are demands for public safety, public works and the environment. These types of projects are the key to creating new and more diverse sources of future revenue."