Tuesday, February 19, 2013
A Suburban Wasteland In Virginia Gets A Modern Urban Feel
(By Alison M. Rice, New York Times, 18 December 2012)
To see Merrifield, Virginia today, with its sleek white Target, its narrow 1920s-style streetscape of specialty food shops along Glass Alley and the rest of the $542 million mixed-use Mosaic District is to nearly forget this unincorporated area’s former life as an uninviting industrial suburban crossroads. But Gerald E. Connolly has not forgotten. Mr. Connolly, who is a second-term member of the United States House of Representatives and a former local official for this corner of Northern Virginia, is familiar with Merrifield’s past and present. He remembers thinking to himself, “What a waste of land,” after being elected in 1995 to the Fairfax County board of supervisors. “We have this aging movie theater that’s surrounded by acres of surface parking,” Mr. Connolly said.
Devising a solution required some imagination. When Mr. Connolly and others first began talking about redeveloping Merrifield, the area was known for its clogged traffic, fast-food restaurants, a dilapidated auto repair shop with quirky decorations, an industrial equipment rental business, a multiscreen movie theater and a huge regional post office. That is slowly starting to change. The auto body shop and fast-food restaurants have vanished, swept away into a long-anticipated $120 million road project designed to smooth the car-choked intersection at Lee Highway and Gallows Road, used by 80,000 vehicles a day. The Lee Highway Multiplex, which was the site of a gang-related incident in 2005, is now gone, its land sold after its owner, National Amusements, scrambled to respond to a debt crisis with its bankers.
A street grid populated with more modern buildings is beginning to emerge in the Mosaic District, which is the core of the new town center plan, and beyond. “There’s more to be done, but you can see the final result in your mind’s eye without too much effort,” Mr. Connolly said. The company behind the latest stage in Merrifield’s evolution is Edens, a private retail developer based in Columbia, S.C., that owns more than 130 shopping centers. “This was the right project, in the right place, at the right time, by the right developer,” said Barbara Byron, director of Fairfax County’s Office of Community Revitalization. “The vision that they presented was exactly what the county was looking for as the Merrifield Town Center.” Edens found Merrifield, which is about 15 miles from Washington, enticing. “There are very few sites left in the country that are undeveloped and that have the density and strength of a permanent and daytime consumer base within a 10-minute drive time,” said Jodie W. McLean, the president and chief investment officer for Edens, who found the local market statistics — 10 million square feet of office space within a mile and an average household income of $173,338 within a five-mile radius — irresistible.
The result was the 31-acre Mosaic District, which opened this fall with shops and restaurants, an Angelika Film Center, a 150-room Hyatt House hotel, and 73,000 square feet of office space. While much of the retail has been leased, the offices are still awaiting the first tenants. Named Mosaic to refer to the many different Northern Virginia neighborhoods that encircle Merrifield, the project is divided into four geographic districts: fashion and retail; film and dining; market, which includes specialty food shops; and residential. Eventually, the LEED-certified development will include a total of 500,000 square feet of retail and 1,000 residential units. The housing will be built by rental apartment developers AvalonBay and Mill Creek Residential, with townhouses for sale built by the home builder EYA of Bethesda, Md. A handful of the residences will be designated as affordable housing for qualified applicants. All those components add up to the largest development that Edens has ever done. “We spent a long time understanding the consumer,” said Ms. McLean, whose team drew up profiles of what they see as crucial Mosaic District visitors, from the baby boomer mom whose youngest child is leaving for college soon to young, single women who love to shop. Based on that research, Edens decided that the district would need to become a destination that offered convenience and a unique consumer experience. So Edens built a one-acre park and erected a supersize outdoor movie screen overlooking the park for public events to serve as a gathering place for the surrounding community.
To be more accessible to drivers than nearby Tysons Corner Center, a large regional mall with its own traffic problems, Edens specifically designed the district’s parking for speedy entry and exit. And to provide an experience, not just transactions, to shoppers who always have the Internet for low prices and fast shipping, Edens carefully vetted restaurants and retailers to find distinctive shops and restaurants. “Consumers want to spend time where it feels unique and special,” said Ms. McLean, whose firm wants the district to become at least a twice-weekly visit for its core customers. As a result, the mix of retail and restaurant tenants is an untraditional combination of national retailers like Anthropologie and tiny local shops like the upscale Dawn Price Baby store and Artisan Confections, a chocolatier. But to capture them, Edens had to overcome the area’s formerly downscale image and lack of identity. “When Mosaic approached us, we had just begun to think about opening a second store,” said Cary Kelly, owner of Ah Love Oil & Vinegar, which sells more than 30 different varieties of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. “I thought, ‘Merrifield? Where is that?’ But we were really impressed by the product mix, the intentional aspect of it, and the big emphasis on local businesses.”
In the Mosaic District, Edens grouped its tenants by type, clustering specialty grocers such as MOM’s Organic Market close to a butcher, fish market and wine shop, for example. “Mixed use has relied on food of all kinds as its primary anchor, from Whole Foods to Harris Teeter and restaurants of all types,” said Maureen McAvey, a retail specialist with the Urban Land Institute in Washington. “As bookstores closed, food has become even more important” to retail development. As the district comes together, though, one piece remains stubbornly hard to fit: walkability. Intended as a pedestrian-friendly town center and less than a mile from a Metro station, Mosaic is still best reached for many visitors by car or bus, rather than on foot, because of traffic on nearby roads. “You have to retrofit what you already have, and Gallows Road and Lee Highway were already in place,” said Linda Q. Smyth, who represents Merrifield on the county’s board of supervisors. She remembered just how insufficient Merrifield’s infrastructure used to be, recalling that “we had pieces of street that faded into nothing.”
Such a mixed bag of infrastructure takes time to convert into a walkable neighborhood. Elected officials say recent road improvements intended to divert traffic away from known Merrifield bottlenecks should help. So should many of the residential projects under construction in the area, which will expand the sidewalk network and create the new street grid, they said. But some people are not interested in waiting to see what happens. At EYA, sales are running ahead of projections. The builder had expected to sell 48 of its town homes in the district in 2012, but as of mid-December, the builder had already sold 71, at prices starting in the $600,000s. “They want walkable living and there’s some sense of being an urban pioneer,” Preston Innerst, EYA’s vice president of sales and marketing, said of the Mosaic District buyers. “They see a lot of upside potential, and they like the feeling of being in on the ground floor before it really takes off.”