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Friday, January 9, 2015

Seven Corners working group weighs redevelopment options for Sears site

The working group reviews development options for the Sears site on Route 7.
The Special Working Group on the Sears Site at its Jan. 7 meeting agreed to pursue a plan based on the best elements from the three concepts developed at the group’s design workshop in November.

The three designs had different amounts of density, different mixes of housing, retail, and offices; and had different layouts – but they weren’t that far apart.

Members of the public who voted on the three concepts at an open house last month didn’t express a clear preference, although the design by Team 1 got slightly more votes, 76, than Team 2 (57 votes) and Team 3 (64 votes). A “no-build option” got 14 votes.

“There were lots of conflicting opinions,” said Joanne Fiebe of the Fairfax County Office of Community Revitalization (OCR). Members of the public generally liked these amenities the most: outdoor cafĂ© seating, green space, recreational space, and high-quality architectural finishes. Here are the main features of each concept:

Team #1 – This design, named “the Aerie” because this group wants to retain and repurpose the round tower on the Sears building, calls for the tallest buildings lining Route 7 with some first-floor retail and housing above; a plaza at the center of the property; an entertainment complex; townhouses at the rear   closest to the single-family houses; and either retaining the existing office building closest to Patrick Henry Drive or putting senior housing at that location.

Team #2  – The design for “the Hollows” calls for two main buildings facing Route 7, ground-floor retail, an interior road winding through the property lined with townhouses, senior housing by Patrick Henry Drive, and lots of green space.

Team #3 – The proposed “Village at Craftsman Heights” would have a park at the rear, a recreational field next to Bailey’s Upper Elementary School for use by the school and community, three major buildings along Route 7, townhouses at the rear, and a community entertainment feature. This plan would have two access points on Route 7, while the other two would only have one.

Members of the working group easily reached a consensus on the elements they prefer from all three teams. They like the idea of senior housing because it fits the demographics of the area and wouldn’t burden the schools.

They also like the athletic field near the school, the highest density on Route 7, townhouses at the rear, an entertainment facility, such as a movie theater; a central plaza; and concentration of retail along a central road with access to Route 7. They also want to make sure that Juniper Road won’t be accessible from the neighborhood.

OCR staff will further refine the concept, figure the square footage of development, and present a detailed plan at the next meeting, on Jan. 20.

Also during the meeting, Ajay Rawat, coordinator of facility planning services for Fairfax County Public Schools, gave a presentation on the methodology used by FCPS to determine how many school-age children any new project is likely to generate.

Many working group members and local residents believe the FCPS formula consistently underestimates the number of students in Mason District, leading to severely overcrowded schools, because it fails to take into account the fact that there are more families in older apartment complexes. “There are twice as many students in Seven Corners than the formula would suggest,” said working group chair Marty Faga.

Rawat noted that FCPS is required to use a single formula across the whole county and cannot use different formulas in different areas. It was later reported that Mason School Board member Sandy Evans is planning to propose a change in the school capacity formula so it better reflects current conditions. 

During the public comment period, Ernie Wells, expressed concerns about the impact of higher density on the schools, and suggested the redevelopment plan endorsed by the working group use a more accurate school capacity formula than the one used by FCPS.

Mark Hayes suggested the community should have an opportunity to see the plan in advance of the next meeting. John Iekel, president of the Ravenwood Park Civic Association, expressed concerns about the possibility of increased traffic on Patrick Henry Drive, which already bears 700 vehicles a day.

Debbie Ratliff said she supports lower density and green space next to the school. She also urged the working group maintain the integrity of the Shadeland cul de sac and make sure it doesn’t become a through-street. Opening up that street has never been an issue, Faga said.

Clyde Miller noted that the comprehensive plan can be modified later if a developer comes in with a proposal for a higher-density project. As a result, he suggested making the comprehensive plan amendment for the Sears site as limited and simplified as possible. Setting the development bar very low – with a low level of density – would prevent the county from approving a high-density project, he said.

OCR Director Barbara Byron said if the bar is set too low, developers won’t want to put in as many amenities, so the result won’t be what the community wants.

“The community wants more clarity and transparency, not less,” added working group member Bill Lecos. “Going backwards is absolutely the wrong direction.”

Don Smith, a resident of Juniper Lane, urged the group to consider not allowing higher levels of density and not allowing more development. “Between drowning and hanging the best option is ‘none of the above,’” he said.

That would default to the current zoning for the site, Lecos responded, and without a plan, the result would be piecemeal development. 


  1. A very informative article. I was struck by the fact the Fairfax County School Board (FCSB) currently insists on a school capacity formula that does not reflect reality and results in a consistent undercount. This would suggest FCSB long-range planning is based on an inherently flawed estimate of future school capacity needs.

    It is good to know Sandy Evans "is planning to propose a change." What is left unsaid and unreported is when Ms. Evans will actually propose the change and when will a change in policy to more accurately reflect reality take effect.

    In the meantime, it reflects very poorly on the FCSB that its rules require the use of estimates of school capacity needs they know do not reflect reality.

    1. I believe the School Board is having a work session on Monday on both the draft CIP and on the issue of proffers and the student yield formula. The work session overall starts at 11 am, and the CIP and proffers portion is estimated to start around 12:30 pm. These sessions are held at Gatehouse Administration Center, Rm 1600 on the first floor and of course open to the public. This is primarily an opportunity for Board members to ask questions of staff and possibly request follow-up steps, such as to clarify issues or get more information. They generally don’t make decisions at these meetings, but the discussions can be important. Background materials are posted on BoardDocs; here’s a link to what staff has provided as background materials on proffers and student yield formula:

      Meeting: All-day Work Sessions Nos. 64-68
      Date: Monday, January 12, 2015
      Item: 2.03 Development Review and Proffer Process

      I believe Sandy Evans plans to ask about the idea of having a yield formula that better reflects regional differences. If you’re interested but can’t make it to the meeting, I believe you should be able to view a videotape of the work session that they will put up online.

    2. @3:06 -- Thank you for that explanation. I also had the impression that it was the use of a single formula over the entire district that was the problem. This is a problem that arises with other school-related issues as well. We live in such a large county that policies or decisions in one section may not fit for another section (inclement weather closings, or rules about transportation are some others that come to mind).

      I wonder if allowing some variations in the enrollment prediction formula might provide an opening to looking at other policies on a more localized basis.

    3. Yes, thank you very much for sharing this information on the School Board's consideration of these issues. I did not realize the student yields issue is subject to regional differences within Fairfax County. This information once again demonstrates how these issues turn out to be much more complicated than they first appear, and why simply criticizing the people in charge is taking the easy way out. I apologize to the School Board for my earlier criticism, and am very glad they are closely looking at this issue. I will do my best to make the time to keep up with the School Board's deliberations.

  2. I hope this is the end of these design workshops, they could have torn down that wretched 7 corners and rebuilt it by now.

  3. Which segment of Patrick Henry Drive sees 700 cars a day? I'd assume that's the number on the segment west of Leesburg Pike, since it was cited by Ravenswood Park representatives.

    I ask only because traffic counts from Willston to Leesburg Pike have to be significantly more than that. However, I can't imagine that this development will change the counts west of Rt. 7 very much, so the association's concern seems a bit of a non sequitur in this context.

  4. Population will increase no matter what, so high density development makes sense to me. More people bring in more tax revenue. If by some miracle population decreases let the developers have tax breaks for providing unleased space for artists.