|The Willston Center (on the left) viewed from the pedestrian bridge on Route 50.|
The school advocates urged the task force to include the transformation of the Willston Multicultural Center into an elementary school as a major component of the revitalization of Seven Corners. Their main issue is overcrowding. Both schools are way over capacity. Bailey’s has 19 trailers, and Glen Forest has 12.
Eric Welch, executive director of the Fairfax Leadership Academy, called for the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to transfer the Willston building to Fairfax County Public Schools, because it would benefit the children who live in the Seven Corners area. “This community believes strongly in children,” he said.
A school in Seven corners would “bring children back to their neighborhood,” said Bailey’s parent Suzie Phipps. The site is on the small side, but FCPS is already designing a multistory school for Tysons, she said.
Christine Adams, a parent with children at Bailey’s, called for a new school at Willston with wrap-around social and health services for children and families.
Lisa Francovich, former PTA president at Glen Forest, said some students who ride buses on Route 7 take as long as an hour to get home. Her son’s classroom is in a trailer and has go to another building to use the bathroom. She feels it’s unsafe because the school is near a Safeway, and there are lots of homeless people around. Francovich also said redeveloping Willston would help the community move beyond the building’s role in the Washington sniper saga. The snipers were in the Willston parking lot when they shot and killed a woman at the Home Depot across Route 50.
Better office space needed
After the public comment part of the meeting, most of the 50 to 60 people concerned with school overcrowding left, and the task force heard presentations from real estate and development experts.
One of the key challenges in redeveloping Seven Corners is the lack of high-quality office space, said Curtis Hoffman, director of real estate for the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority (FCEDA), an independent agency funded by the county.
There hasn’t been any new office development there in the past 20 years, and anything more than 12 years old is considered obsolete, he said. Companies are looking for modern, well-maintained buildings with an up-to-date infrastructure that can accommodate their IT needs.
On the up side, Seven Corners is well-situated inside the beltway and close to D.C., Tysons, and Arlington. “The location is here, the product is not here,” Hoffman said.
Office vacancy in the Seven Corners Revitalization District is 23 percent, compared to 14.6 percent for the county as a whole. Leasing rates in Seven Corners have been steadily increasing since 2009 and average $28 to $32 per square foot, which is comparable to rates in what Hoffman refers to as “class B office space” in Tysons and Reston.
Hoffman said the development community and residents are interested in mixed-use projects—combining office, retail, and residential uses—and the area of Seven Corners north of Route 50 and east of Route 7 would be ideal for that.
That area has been designated by the U.S. Small Business Administration as a HUB (historically underutilized business) Zone, which means certain businesses that relocate there could be eligible for preferences in awarding federal contracts. There are only three HUB Zones in Fairfax County.
According to Hoffman, Seven Corners planners need to come up with the right mix of office, retail, and residential, and the residential needs to be a mix of rental and other forms of housing. “If you want to bring in higher-end retail and residential, you’re going to need a new office component,” he said.
Nate Edwards, also a real estate specialist at the EDA, said one area ripe for redevelopment is Castle Place, where a couple of medical buildings are on the market. Any mixed-use project will require an assemblage of land, he noted, as many properties are less than an acre.
Gloomy future for retail
In general, the outlook for retail development is not very good, said Bruce Leonard, managing principal with Streetsense, a company based in Bethesda involved in urban planning and redevelopment consulting.
Several factors have created a “perfect storm” for traditional brick-and-mortar retail, he said:
- There’s an oversupply of most brands (like Victoria’s Secret and the Limited), so companies are closing stores.
- Boomers lost half their net worth in the recent recession and cut back on buying things.
- The millennial generation is more fragmented and has different buying patterns.
- The growth of online shopping is threatening big-box stores.
- Development patterns favor urban over suburban retail development, as more people prefer city living.
When shopping centers lose tenants, it’s hard to replace them, so the only retailers willing to move in tend to be dollar stores. Building shopping centers and then trying to lure tenants doesn’t work anymore, he said. Retail developers need to have a good strategy. “Retail can’t be forced. It either works or it fails miserably”—which means vacant buildings.
What is working now, he said, is neighborhood retail, regional restaurants rather than national chains, and “immersive retail,” where shopping is an experience. That’s what makes the Apple stores so successful.
Mixed-use projects have dramatically higher infrastructure costs and are much more complex than traditional shopping centers, and thus much riskier. Developers have to make sure there is appropriate parking for residents and shoppers, there is a strong partnership with the public sector, there is appropriate density, and the costs are in line relative to the rents than can be charged.