Being the Executive Director of the Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation (SFDC) makes one a convenient target for slings and arrows when it comes to the ongoing saga that is the revitalization of Richmond Highway. There has certainly been ample fodder for citizen frustration in recent weeks, as a number of new businesses that fall under the category of “highway commercial” have been announced, leading many people to question whether or not revitalization is actually taking place.
I would like to take this opportunity to ask everyone out there to take a deep breath and consider two salient points.
First, many of the new businesses are locating in existing commercial space, and the county’s only oversight is of the actual end use. Let’s consider recent cases like the car title loan operation that is replacing Mike’s Italian Restaurant or the auto repair center proposed at Mount Vernon Crossroads. These types of businesses are permitted uses in the C-8 (Highway Commercial) zoning district, and the only improvements being made to the existing buildings are cosmetic. As such, the county has no legal authority to stop these businesses from opening assuming that they comply with all other laws. If the owners of these businesses are willing to pay the rent, then the building owners are perfectly well within their rights to lease space to them.
Second, there is the sticky issue of by-right development. Under Fairfax County’s
existing ordinances a property owner may erect an entirely new structure on a property without having to obtain a Comprehensive Plan amendment or a rezoning so long as the new structure conforms to the existing zoning. In other words, if an owner wants to build a new strip retail building on a property that is zoned for highway commercial retail development the county has no authority to deny the owner that right—even if the Comprehensive Plan calls for a different use or density. This is the exact situation for the proposed strip shopping centers at Fordson Place and the Bestway site. The only authority the county has at this point for these sites is to shape their actual physical layouts and the appearance of buildings through the Site Plan review process. The county simply has no authority to force these property owners to build the higher density or mixed-use structures that are desired in the Comprehensive Plan.
In this regulatory environment revitalization becomes a matter of market economics. If a developer or property owner decides that a particular site can be profitable enough as a higher-intensity development to justify the enormous risk of such a project, a revitalization project will ensue. If the same property owner concludes that it can continue to generate a sufficient income stream from an older and/or lower intensity site, that owner will most likely maintain the property as a strip commercial site or build a new, low density retail structure.
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In light of all of the above facts, I would like to say a few things to the public about SFDC and our role in shaping the revitalization of Richmond Highway:
1. SFDC is a nonprofit organization with a very modest budget and a full-time staff of two.
2. Since we are not part of Fairfax County government we have absolutely no regulatory authority whatsoever.
3. Our central focus is to make the economic argument to developers and property owners that higher-intensity revitalization is a better investment than
maintaining low-intensity, highway commercial development.
4. In light of the preceding point we need the assistance and support of the
community to foster revitalization.
I will close with an appeal for the public to please take a look at the actual, on-the-ground evidence of the effects of the actions of the community at large.
On the one hand, if the development community believes that the community is in favor of revitalization, developers will be far more likely to invest millions of dollars in attractive revitalization projects like Beacon of Groveton or the Courts of Huntington.
On the other hand, if developers believe that putting forth a revitalization project will lead to a pitched battle drawn out over several years, those developers will likely do one of two things: 1) manage the decline of older retail centers, leasing space to a stream of down-market tenants that pay ever lower rents; or 2) follow the precedent set by Kings Crossing, in which a high-concept revitalization plan was scuttled in favor of a by-right development consisting of a Walmart and auto-oriented pad retail development.
If we as a community want to see positive change on Richmond Highway we will need to come together in support of revitalization. If we continue to fight against revitalization we will end up with more of the exact same type of development that has given the area a negative image in the first place. The key (which I will discuss in an upcoming column) is to ensure that new development helps to pay for sorely needed “public goods” like road improvements, beautification, parks, and school facilities.