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Friday, May 8, 2015

Planning Commission defers decision on Seven Corners redevelopment

There was lots of discussion at the Planning Commission hearing about the need to retain affordable housing.
The Fairfax County Planning Commission deferred a decision on the Seven Corners Amendment to the county’s Comprehensive Plan to July 8.

People who spoke at the Planning Commission’s public hearing May 7 were pretty much split among those who supported the plan and those who opposed it. Those who urged the commissioners to reject the plan cited concerns about density, traffic, and affordable housing.

Julie Strandlie, the planning commissioner representing Mason District, moved to delay a final decision to give the public more time to submit comments. The deadline for comments is June 24. The Board of Supervisors hearing has been deferred to July 28. 

The Seven Corners plan amendment is based on the recommendations of the Seven Corners Task Force on Land Use and Transportation and a Special Working Group that dealt with the Sears site.

The task force, established in 2012 by Mason Supervisor Penny Gross, developed recommendations for  Area A (the Willston shopping centers and apartments between Route 50 and Wilson Boulevard) and Area B (the Seven Corners Shopping Center), and a series of transportation improvements aimed at reducing traffic congestion and improving connectivity.

The task force, however, failed to reach a consensus on Area C (the Sears site), so Gross appointed a working group, made up of community representatives, to address that area.

The draft plan amendment, outlined by county staff at the hearing, calls for a mix of multifamily housing, retail, offices, and parks, with the tallest buildings closest to the Seven Corners intersection and along Route 7.

The plan proposes transforming Route 7 into a transit corridor, adding three additional Route 50 crossings, providing more local streets to give people more options for getting through the intersection, and adding five miles of bicycle lanes.

Redevelopment needed

John Thillman, co-chair of the task force, urged the Planning Commission to approve the plan, noting, “Seven Corners is clearly in need of redevelopment and revitalization.”

“We created a plan showing what revitalization can achieve for obsolete areas by creating mixed-use development and mixing in market-rate housing,” Thillman said. The plan “would make Seven Corners a livable, walkable area.”

Martin Faga, a task force member who also served as chair of the Special Working Group for the Sears site, also urged the commissioners to support the plan. “The existing buildings in Area C are obsolete,” he said, and failure to redevelop is “a prescription for decay.”

Two other members of the Task Force, Mark Silverwood, whose company owns some of the Seven Corners apartments, and Karl Moritz, a resident of Lee Boulevard Heights who is director of planning and zoning for the City of Alexandria, urged the Planning Commission to support the Comprehensive Plan amendment.
“Seven Corners can’t wait any longer to be revitalized,” Moritz said. This plan is feasible and it meets the community’s goals for expanded retail and services, greater connectivity, retaining diversity and low-income residents, and “creating a real place,” he said.

Jim Kilbourne, president of the Lake Barcroft Association, and a member of the Area C working group, said his community is in favor of modernizing Seven Corners in a way that maximizes the amount of green space, emphasizes environmental sustainability, addresses the need for additional school capacity, and improves transportation.

Kilbourne said he is participating in another community working group that is developing further recommendations for Areas A and B.

“We support a comprehensive plan that takes a holistic view,” he said. “Density can’t be so high that it overwhelms transportation and schools.” To make this work, “there must be sufficient economic incentives for developers.” He urged the commission “to review the density levels carefully with this in mind.”

“Seven corners is not the place I moved into in 1962,” said William Lecos of Lake Barcroft, who also served on the Area C working group. While the area’s cultural diversity is a positive change, he said, retail is stagnant, there is a large concentration of low-income housing, the schools are good but are overcrowded, traffic is congested, and there has been no new investment in in the past 50 years.

According to Lecos, “Redevelopment will provide a broader tax base for Fairfax County and our community.”

“Doing nothing is simply not an option,” said Sarah Mattingly, also of Lake Barcroft. She lauded the environmental provisions in the plan, such as stormwater improvements, additional green spaces,  sustainable building design, and creation of a walkable community.

Stewart Schwartz,  executive director of the Coalition of Smarter Growth, supports the plan, especially the proposed transportation network and bicycle connectivity, but said it needs a few tweaks in such areas as stormwater mitigation and should require the public sector to provide more support for affordable housing.

Residents oppose plan

Debbie Smith, speaking on behalf of the Mason District Council of Community Associations, said the proposed plan fails to reflect the concerns of residents: It calls for too much density, wouldn’t protect existing affordable housing, wouldn’t provide enough green space, and would lead to more traffic congestion.

“Rebuilding the Seven Corners interchange will cost more than $100 million, with no source of funding in sight,” Smith said. And while the plan recognizes the need to relieve school overcrowding, it fails to include a requirement for a new school.

Clyde Miller, president of the Holmes Run Valley Citizen’s Association, urged the commissioners to oppose the plan because it would allow excessive density, traffic congestion would overwhelm the area, it doesn’t provide for a badly needed new school, and “would threaten the vitality and quality of life in this thriving community.” 

Donald Smith said he opposes the plan because there would be too much density, “adding thousands of cars to the infamous Seven Corners intersection,” and is too far, 1.4 miles, from the East Falls Church Metro station.

Affordable housing

Another major concern cited by Miller: “Valuable low-income housing would be lost.” While the plan calls for affordable housing to be replaced on a one-to-one basis, it doesn’t require the same number of housing units now in the area that are affordable to people at the lowest income levels.

Miller wants the housing currently affordable for people with up to 60 percent of area median income (AMI) to be replaced with housing at that level – not replaced with housing affordable for people at 120 percent of AMI.

To revitalize the 589 units of existing affordable housing – which is 60 or 70 years old – and build also new affordable units, it’s necessary to build three new market-rate units for every one affordable unit, Thillman said. The area also needs more people in the area with higher incomes to support upgraded retail.

If the Seven Corners plan is not approved, most of the existing affordable housing would eventually go away, said Marianne Gardner, director of the Fairfax County Planning Division. About half of the existing units have market-rate rents that are low because the units are in poor shape. A developer could tear them down and build housing with higher rents. The other half must remain affordable due to tax subsidies, but those protections will eventually expire.

School at Willston

Commissioner Nell Hurley (Braddock) asked why people were concerned about the need for a school when the Willston property had already been identified as a school site. That has been confusing, Miller said. “There are whispers and innuendo about this,” but “nothing has been designated.”

Strandlie noted that Gross and Mason school board member Sandy Evans have been having conversations about a school on the Willston site, but Miller said nothing has been announced publicly about that.

Until recently, he said, Gross had been pushing a school at the southeast quadrant of Columbia Pike in Bailey’s Crossroads. Now, she is talking about the possibility of having the Willston site used for a school along with government services and a child care facility.

Neighborhood concerns

John Iekel, president of the Ravenwood Park Citizens Association, said his community supports mixed-use development but would like to see a traffic analysis and traffic mitigation measures, including spot improvements, in place before redevelopment happens. He also expressed concerns about density, building height, the need to preserve low-income housing, and the need for a new school.

Regarding Area C, Iekel said he is concerned about connecting Juniper Lane and Patrick Henry Drive, which would lead to more traffic on Patrick Henry.

Ernie Wells said he supports most of the plan but opposes one section – a chart showing the amount of housing allowed – which he said is based on what developers want to build to maximize profit. It’s better to leave out specific numbers, he said, because the plan has a 20 to 40-year horizon and it’s “the height of arrogance” to predict that far ahead.

He also opposes a pedestrian connection between the Sears site and Shadeland Drive because it could lead to more crime and parking problems in the neighborhood. Debbie Ratliff, who also lives on Shadeland, said the community association voted against providing access from the cul de sac.

Citizen input

There was some disagreement at the hearing over whether residents were given an adequate opportunity to participate in the planning process. Thillman said there were 85 meetings throughout the past two and a-half years, beginning with the visioning sessions before the task force was formed, “that were completely open to the public.” 

Brian van de Meulebroecke, president of the Bailey’s Crossroads Revitalization Corporation, which supports the plan, agreed that “the public had more than enough time to comment.” 

But Miller argued that the community’s concerns weren’t addressed by the task force or by Gross, and that Gross failed to respond to a petition signed by 430 residents. He also said Gross denied residents’ request to delay a decision on the plan, and that her motion for a one-month delay wasn’t sufficient.

Debbie Smith acknowledged that there were a lot of meetings with the community and that residents were given plenty of opportunities to speak, but said, “it was not a dialogue.”

Jon Clark, a resident of Annandale who serves on the MDC board, said developers were well represented on the task force, but citizen groups weren’t given as much of a say. “It was not an educational process; it was a process aimed at coming to a certain conclusion,” he said. Since the plan has a 20 to 40-year time frame, “there’s no need to be in a big rush.”

Several of the commissioners disagreed, noting that there were plenty of opportunities for community involvement.


  1. Mason District Resident5/8/15, 5:00 PM

    In the Tysons comprehensive planning meetings, does affordable housing command such a large percentage of the conversation? I seriously doubt it. Or any other planning district for that matter?

    1. With the Tysons plan, hundreds of affordable units are required by the developers - it's one of the most aggressive affordable housing plans in Fairfax County

  2. Affordable Housing is a big deal in Fairfax. This is from the County's website:

    " The Comprehensive Plan calls for 20 percent of new residences be set aside as work force or affordable housing. This goes beyond the county’s current policy of 12 percent. This housing will be made available to residents making from 50 to 120 percent of the area median income....The Tysons Plan also recommends that new nonresidential development contribute $3.00 per square foot to a housing trust fund dedicated to providing affordable and workforce housing opportunities in Tysons. This policy is intended to address the demand for workforce housing that is created by employment growth in Tysons. "

    So, you may conclude that affordable housing will continue to attract a lot of attention.

  3. Willston School is being planned and it seems it's going to happen, Major road configuration in the area is also planned to alleviate traffic and route 7 mass transit has been studied to connect the area to Falls Church Metro. This and all the development will take years.

    All this is reasonable and good. It will bring a substantial return on investment to further fund schools, roads and other government services. We need to take advantage of the private sector willing to invest in Baileys and 7 Corner.

  4. Very straightforward reporting. Thank you, Ellie.
    It seems that everyone testifying wants change in 7 Corners and wants it now.
    It was interesting, however, that the commissioners seem to have already decided the ultimate outcome. If community input had been acknowledged and addressed it would seem unlikely that so many HOA presidents would be testifying to the contrary. Community comment is completely different from community involvement. Based on the testimonies it seems pretty apparent that other than Sears Parcel C the community wasn’t allowed to be involved. Interesting that there is an apparent conflict of interest within the Task Force. Why was a developer running the task force? I’d like to learn more about that. Developers seem to run the show in Mason District.
    As for the school at Willston. It is much needed and the land should be returned to FCPS. I agree with someone who posted about a month ago that a human services building should NOT be located next to a school. The two building approach that Supervisor Gross carved out with School Board Rep Evans is a less than desirable solution. The only recreational piece of land in that entire area is Willston School's playground. It serves as true greenspace (not "openspace") and is available 7 days a week for recreation for the children and the community. Why destroy this valuable amenity? It is the last chance for grass in the entire area.
    And, how would building a human services building next to a school on that green playground attract the Millenials that Gross insists will buy the market rate apartments? They are attracted to thriving schools, not human services buildings. It makes more sense to put the human services in some of the vacant office buildings around the area instead of spending megabucks to pour more concrete on green grass. To me that’s more than obvious. It is also much better use of taxpayer dollars.