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One if By Land, Two if By Right

Revitalization is largely a matter of market economics, and community support plays a key role in determining the market.

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 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.

*      *      *

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.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

MSandyDogg February 24, 2012 at 04:47 PM
I thought the role of our "mayor"/county supervisor, as well as an organization like SFDC, was to recruit attractive businesses and development. If that's right (maybe it isn't), the argument that the county and the SFDC aren't to blame when undesirable businesses set up due to by-right rules misses the point. The threat of by-right development exists everywhere; why has it so flummoxed our area? A source of frustration for many of us is we hear the SFDC and Hyland say developers are hot to set up on Rt. 1, yet all we get are more title loan shops, auto part stores, mattress sellers, etc. Maybe those claims of developer interest are simply hype -- but when your boosterism doesn't pan out, you have to expect criticism. Certainly there are ways the county can "lean" on property owners -- code enforcement, higher tax assessments, cracking down on illegal activity. Such efforts were used effectively in the late '90s to get rid of many of fleabag hotels on the Rt. 1. For example, It's hard to believe is the junky TV repair hut at the awkward intersection of Richmond Highway and Fordson is up to code. Simple enforcement of building codes and upkeep laws would probably rid us of that eyesore once and for all. It seems to me if the county can convince landowners their ongoing ownership of dilapidated structures is going to cost them -- and SFDC can present them with viable purchasers of their properties -- improvements to Route 1 will come sooner rather than later.
David Versel February 24, 2012 at 05:01 PM
MSandyDogg: I appreciate your comments, and assure you that claims of developer interest in the area are far more than hype. You need look no further than the large-scale proposals being put forth in the Penn Daw area by three separate developers to know that to be true. In regard to your comment about more needing to be done to enforce codes, I couldn't agree more. Since the county has limited resources for enforcing violations, the code compliance office does not proactively seek out violations--it instead relies on the public to report them. If you see a suspected code violation, please call the county code compliance office at 703-324-1300. Finally, you ask why we're so "flummoxed" by by-right development; as I said in the article my answer is plain and simple: economics. A property owner in Tysons Corner isn't going to do a one-story, by-right development, because the potential return is so much greater for a higher density project. If we want to change the picture on Route 1, we first need to change the economic context, and that will only happen if developers believe that they can execute projects here within a reasonable time frame.
ARG March 05, 2012 at 07:42 PM
How does the Mike's Restaurant location continuing as a business work with plans for expansion of Route One southbound to accomodate traffic?
Native Daughter April 26, 2012 at 07:19 PM
I appreciate the clarification of a complicated subject, as well as clarification of what SFDC is & does. In this country, profit always trumps citizen/environmental welfare, so it's virtually impossible to trust & not view this as an invasion of profiteers who will leave us, after all the development dust clears, w/no green spaces left, out-of-control traffic & pollution, miles of commercial chains hawking unhealthful goods, & cheap condos poised on the edge of Rt 1. Please keep filling in the blanks for us, David Versel, so at least we have a modicum of understanding of what we're up against in our community.

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