Development transforming Merrifield into more walkable community

For at least a generation, Merrifield has been known to locals for something that is no longer there: its movie theater.

Years ago, Merrifield was home to the Washington area’s largest drive-in theater, on Lee Highway, just outside the Beltway and south of Interstate 66. In the mid-1980s, the drive-in was turned into a multiplex cinema — warehouse-looking but modern at the time — featuring 14 screens.

Now the former site of Merrifield’s movie theater is the core of a transformation aimed at turning the traffic-snarled area into the sort of lively, walkable community that home buyers and renters increasingly seek.

This will not be easy. Anyone who took in a flick at the Merrifield Multiplex may also remember sitting in traffic at Lee Highway and Gallows Road. The intersection remains one of the most congested points in Fairfax County. Although improving the area’s traffic flow has been the focus of millions of transportation dollars, Gallows Road and Lee Highway remain lined with auto-oriented businesses such as body repair shops, car dealerships, gas stations and big-box retailers with huge parking lots. Not exactly a walk in the park.

But with its proximity to the Beltway and the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station, the area attracts a mix of residents, office workers and shoppers. Developers envision the area attracting young professionals and small families who already live or work nearby but who want to ditch their cars more often and walk to Metro, the supermarket and other stores. This is already happening near Metro stops along Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, but it is much less proven for communities this far out from the District.

“We’re pretty busy all day long — we’re usually full by noon,” said Jill Norton of Great American Restaurants, which manages the Sweetwater Tavern nearby. Norton, who runs three restaurants in Fairfax County, said patrons for lunch and happy hour at Sweetwater in Merrifield come from every direction. “There are a lot of offices close by. We’re very close to Tysons Corner as well, and then Exxon Mobil is right across the street from us,” she said.

Merrifield is sandwiched between better-known addresses in Vienna, Falls Church and Mantua. And unlike other stops on Metro’s Orange Line, from Rosslyn to Ballston in particular, there has been no dramatic urban development around the Dunn Loring-Merrifield station on Gallows Road.

But plans laid long ago to remake Merrifield into a more walkable corridor are taking shape, with some new developments around the Metro station and much more on the way.

The centerpiece of the effort to attract people looking to get out of their cars is a development bordered by Lee Highway, Gallows Road and Route 50, a project once called Merrifield Town Center and since renamed the Mosaic District that is replacing the old movie theater. The first phase is under construction and scheduled to open in September.

At the Metro station, 250 apartments are being built, with an additional 300-plus units and a Harris Teeter grocery store planned. At the Mosaic District, a 531-unit apartment building by AvalonBay and 112 townhouses from home builder EYA are under construction, with the townhouses starting at $597,000. EYA said 31 of the 112 townhouses have been sold.. The median sales price for homes sold in the Merrifield Zip code of 22031 last year was $410,250, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems.

A Target store and a MOM’s Organic Market head the list of stores under construction, providing residents of the new development with basic needs. But there is also a long lineup of restaurants and shops coming. D.C. chefs Jeff and Barbara Black will open Black’s Bar & Kitchen, and they will be joined by Matchbox Pizza, Dolcezza gelato, Red Apron Butchery, Taylor Gourmet and Greek fare from Cava Mezze. Neiman Marcus Last Call Studio — the bargain outlet of the high-end department store chain — will open alongside an Anthropologie, a Bellacara beauty store, a Dawn Price Baby and a Paper Source stationery store.

And the place long known for movies will continue to carry the torch. Angelika Film Center will open an eight-screen cinema.

“I think it’s becoming a more sophisticated, urbanized place,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who helped lay the plans for Mosaic as a county official before being elected to Congress in 2008. “I think that it’s going to rival Arlington for a lot of the younger generation of workers and commuters.”

Like just about everyone from the area, Connolly remembers navigating hordes of traffic and a sea of parking lots to see movies in Merrifield. With Mosaic, he said, “people are going to be able to stroll here on a nice summer night.”

It might not be quite so easy walking to the Metro station. Though Mosaic is advertised as a five-minute walk to Metro, it really takes at least 10 minutes and requires crossing many lanes of traffic and then a retaining wall and a Home Depot. Developer Jodie W. McLean said her company, Edens, plans to run a shuttle regularly from the Metro station and that improvements to the sidewalks between Mosaic and Metro are on the way.

“Eventually all this will become more pedestrian-friendly,” she said. “And it already is.”

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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