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Fairfax County Embraces Urbanism, And Not Just Around Its Metro Stations

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As the D.C. region's suburban jurisdictions compete for companies and residents, local officials and property owners are trying to create vibrant, urbanized places where people want to spend their time. 

Walsh, Colucci's Bob Brant, EYA's McLean Quinn and Brookfield's Cy Kouhestani
Walsh, Colucci's Bob Brant, EYA's McLean Quinn and Brookfield's Cy Kouhestani

In Fairfax County, many of these high-density, mixed-use hubs are rising around Metro stations. But developers say a project does not have to be transit-oriented to be successful. EYA President McLean Quinn, speaking Thursday at Bisnow's Future of Fairfax County event, said the ability to walk to retail amenities can be more attractive than the ability to hop on a train. 

"People want to be out of cars, people want to be closer to things, they want to be able to walk to convenience, whether it's retail or open spaces or engaging places," Quinn said. "Those engaging places don’t have to be on transit. They could be on the existing road network … The demand is to be in walkable mixed-use environments, whether it's on transit or not."

An example of this is Fairfax County's Mosaic District, where EYA has developed townhouses. The mixed-use development, spearheaded by Edens, features bustling public places and a wide variety of retail, though it is nearly a mile from the nearest Metro station. 

"The Mosaic District was an old drive-in theater, and Edens did this, it's just phenomenal what happened," Fairfax County Deputy County Executive Rachel Flynn said. "It has become a magnet for families and young folks and baby boomers, and it's just remarkable. It's totally filled up."

Fairfax County Deputy County Executive Rachel Flynn
Fairfax County Deputy County Executive Rachel Flynn

Flynn, who worked at Google before becoming Fairfax's deputy county executive in January, said creating vibrant, walkable places is key to competing with neighboring jurisdictions for young talent. 

"Fairfax is not attracting these millennials like Arlington is and other places, so we know what we have to do in terms of urbanizing our suburbs," Flynn said. 

The St. James' Craig Dixon, Combined Properties' Sri Velamati, Pennoni's Joseph Viscuso and Federal Realty's Deirdre Johnson
The St. James' Craig Dixon, Combined Properties' Sri Velamati, Pennoni's Joseph Viscuso and Federal Realty's Deirdre Johnson

Craig Dixon, co-founder of Springfield sports and entertainment complex The St. James, said millennials care most about social connections and physical wellness, so developers need to focus on designing active places that cater to those desires.  

"Creating communities that have those amenities integrated in a way that creates great live-work-play experiences is going to be something that will distinguish any jurisdiction from others around the country," Dixon said. "In some of the more dense and urbanized jurisdictions in this market, they have been early adopters in that, and Fairfax County has a bit of catching up to do."

Federal Realty has built urban-style, mixed-use developments in suburban places such as Bethesda, Maryland, Somerville, Massachusetts, and San Jose, California. The REIT is now looking to bring that strategy to Fairfax County, where it announced in February it is opening a new office.

The REIT owns 10 shopping centers in the county, Federal Realty Vice President Deirdre Johnson said, and most of them are older, suburban-style strip malls that don't sit near Metro stations. 

"Most of what we've had, we've had for 20 years, and we have not invested in them the way we should," Johnson said. "We're looking at taking all of the things we've learned from Pike & Rose, Santana Row and Bethesda Row, those mixed-use qualities, and bringing them to our core-level assets in a strategic way. Over time we're looking to redevelop those assets in a very phased and smart, but we think creative and exciting, way."

Walsh, Colucci's Andrew Painter, Comstock's Tim Steffan, LCOR's Josh White and SCG Development's Stephen Wilson
Walsh, Colucci's Andrew Painter, Comstock's Tim Steffan, LCOR's Josh White and SCG Development's Stephen Wilson

Comstock Executive Vice President Tim Steffan, whose firm is building a major mixed-use project at the Wiehle-Reston East station, said he sees the wave of urbanization moving in that direction. He said he remembers when Arlington's now-bustling neighborhoods were filled with used car dealerships. 

"Clarendon densified and urbanized, and eventually Ballston urbanized and densified," Steffan said. "Tysons has urbanized now, and it's all flowing westward to Reston and Herndon. You see the same great things that have happened in Clarendon, Ballston and Tysons now happening in Reston with smart growth."

While Tysons has a significant amount of high-density office development, it has struggled with creating the walkable, mixed-use places that other parts of the region enjoy. 

"In Tysons, what we're lacking right now is really a sense of place," LCOR President Josh White said. "We need some of this new development to create a sense of place where people actually want to live there."

SCG Development's Stephen Wilson, Boston Properties' Pete Otteni, Cityline Partners' Donna Shafer and Davis' Michael Pittsman
SCG Development's Stephen Wilson, Boston Properties' Pete Otteni, Cityline Partners' Donna Shafer and Davis' Michael Pittsman

LCOR in January completed the first of seven buildings it has planned on a 20-acre site near the McLean Metro station. Also near the McLean station, Cityline Partners is working on the 8M SF Scotts Run development. Two buildings have been completed on the site, and last year it sold a piece of the project to Skanska to build a 350-unit multifamily project. 

Cityline Partners Managing Director Donna Shafer said the McLean Metro station area has come a long way in improving its walkability. She said her project and others are creating new pedestrian-friendly streets and bike lanes, and a new walking and cycling bridge over the Beltway is set to begin construction next year. 

"Walkability was I think our biggest vulnerable point," Shafer said. "I look at the [McLean] Metro station as an example of how that's changing ... the urban jungle thing just doesn't hold much water anymore."

Fairfax County Economic Development Authority's Victor Hoskins
Fairfax County Economic Development Authority CEO Victor Hoskins

Developers and local officials hope creating more attractive urban places can help Fairfax County attract talent. Fairfax County Economic Development Authority CEO Victor Hoskins, who joined this year after leading the Amazon HQ2 win for Arlington County, said talent is the key to attracting companies like Amazon. 

"In Fairfax County, our future is about talent," Hoskins said. "How do we help companies acquire talent, how do we help our companies retain talent, how do we help our companies retrain talent and how do we attract talent."