|An illustration of the proposed East County Office Building at the Willston site produced by Fairfax County in August 2013.|
When the Seven Corners Task Force was putting together a redevelopment proposal for the area in 2013-14, it endorsed a plan to include a new county office building on the Willston Center site. There was little discussion of that aspect of the plan, however, at the Task Force meetings either by members of the group or local residents speaking at open comment sessions.
Calls to return the Willston site, which is owned by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, to Fairfax County Public Schools has taken on increased urgency in recent weeks. On Dec. 8, Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Karen Garza formally requested County Executive Edward Long to transfer the Willston site to relieve severe overcrowding at nearby schools.
“We have been wanting that site back as a good viable option for a school for a long time. We are once again reiterating that we’re interested in having it back again,” says Mason District school board member Sandy Evans. “The government center, as far as the public is concerned is a relatively new idea.”
“Ultimately, it’s in the hands of the county,” Evans says.
Several people spoke about the need to build a school on the Willston site at the school board’s public hearing on the FCPS Capital Improvement Program on Jan. 7. The Mason District Council of Community Associations (MDC) is drafting a resolution and will urge local PTAs to endorse it. The issue will also be a hot topic at MDC’s State of Our Schools Forum Feb. 10 at Glasgow Middle School.
The Board of Supervisors, however, has no inclination to return the Willston property to FCPS. County officials have been quietly working on planning the East County Government Center at the Willston site for more than a year, according to documents and emails obtained by Seven Corners resident Mark Hayes through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Hayes sought the documents because he believes “there was a lack of full transparency.” He says the office building proposal should have been discussed in more detail at the Seven Corners Task Force meetings and that the community was misled into thinking a school on that site is a viable option.
He also questions the large price tag – $120 million – for the county office building, which he refers to as “Penny’s palace.” Mason Supervisor Penny Gross has been outspoken in her support for the office building on the Willston site and opposition to transferring the property to FCPS.
An email from August 2013 describes the East County Office Building as a 180,000-square foot facility with five or six stories and a parking structure with room for 500 to 600 cars. A concept drawing also from that month puts the total building area at 220,000 square feet and shows an artificial turf field above a three-level parking deck with 720 spaces.
County officials have talked about developing a new county office building in the eastern part of the county for at least a decade, says Elizabeth Haag, deputy director of the Fairfax County Office of Community Revitalization (OCR) and the leader of an interdepartmental team working on the office building concept. She said the plan has always been to have a permanent building rather than leased space.
Whether the project goes forward depends on whether the Board of Supervisors approves the Seven Corners amendment to the Comprehensive Plan, Haag says.
Regarding the $120 million figure, which is included in emails among the team members, Haag says: “I’m not sure if that is accurate. That number is from previous discussions. I don’t know what the exact figure would be.”
Haag notes that the East County Office Building was discussed at the Seven Corners Task Force meetings and at the group’s design charette and was included in the first draft of the complete plan amendment, dated June 23, 2014.
The OCR staff “responded to all issues brought up by the task force and community members,” Haag says. “This hasn’t been an issue raised by the community. If it had been, we would have responded.”
During the task force meetings, most of the community’s concerns were about excessive density and the impact of redevelopment on traffic, school overcrowding, and the quality of life in the adjacent single-family neighborhoods. There weren’t a lot of objections – if any – to the office building.
Originally, the county had planned to include the East County Office Building in a proposed mixed-use development in Bailey’s Crossroads on Columbia Pike between Radley Acura and Moncure Avenue.
That plan fell through when the ownership of that property changed. The new owner, Avalon Bay is planning a multifamily housing project and, as part of a public-private partnership with the county, a section of the property has been set aside for a new urban-style elementary school. The Board of Supervisors is holding a public hearing on a comprehensive plan amendment for the project on Jan. 13.
The East County Office Building was then moved to Seven Corners as a key element of a town center proposed by the Seven Corners Task Force for the site currently occupied by the Willston Center, Willston Shopping Center, and garden apartments. In fact, Task Force Co-Chair John Thillman had stated in the past that the proposal needs the jobs that would come with the office building to make the plan financially viable.
The East County building would house the health, mental health, alcohol and drug referral services, community services and other programs housed in spaced leased in the Heritage Center on Little River Turnpike in Annandale. County officials hope the new building could open before the lease at the Heritage Center expires in 2020.
Before those programs were relocated to that building in 2012, they had been housed in the office building on Leesburg Pike in Seven Corners that was later repurposed as Bailey’s Upper Elementary School.
Having the East County building in Seven Corners “would bring those services back to the community that uses them,” Haag says. It’s possible the new building could also house all or some of the programs currently housed in the Willston Center.
The Willston building is at least 60 years old and needs to be razed because it’s not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act or building code standards and fixing those problems would be too expensive.
Hayes and many other local residents believe the Willston property would be a much better site for an elementary school than the Columbia Pike/Moncure site. He also views the Bailey’s Upper Elementary School as less than ideal. “We’re ending up with choices by default,” he says.
Evans also views the Willston site as preferable – it has more space than the Columbia Pike site and has room for an athletic field – but believes officials should explore both sites. The Columbia Pike property is closer to Glen Forest Elementary School, which has over 1,000 students and is severely overcrowded.
“We clearly need more seats in Mason District. That’s the bottom line,” Evans says. “The more options we have the better.”
Hayes also thinks people who live near the Willston Center should have had more input into the Task Force discussions, especially since the documents he obtained call for 27 units in the East Falls apartments to be demolished to make way for the office building.
The county has subsequently dropped plans to tear down any housing, says Haag. “That was looked at as a possibility” but dropped because “tax credits are tied to some of that housing. It would be too complicated.”
The Willston building served as an elementary school for many years. According to a memo obtained by Hayes, the land at 6131 Willston Drive was dedicated to the Fairfax County School Board in 1949 with the condition that it be used for educational purposes or the parcel would revert to the original owner.
In 1981, the school board adopted a resolution declaring the parcel surplus to its needs, and in 1988 the property was conveyed to the Board of Supervisors. Now known as the Willston Multicultural Center, the building houses an after-school program and several community programs and organizations.