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Potomac Mills Owner Proposes Upscale Mall

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 12, 2005; Page B02

The owner of Potomac Mills, the region's mecca of discount shopping, wants to develop a high-end retail mall nearby that would be surrounded by luxury lofts and sidewalk cafes to meet the demands of Prince William County's burgeoning group of well-heeled residents, officials said yesterday.

The company that helped define the county as the place to go for cheap clothes now says it's time to make a change, or at least "complement" the outlet mall with an alternative for upscale shoppers, said Ramsey Meiser, group vice president of development for Arlington-based Mills Corp.

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"The changing demographics of the county, the growth, the average income justifies this kind of retail," Meiser said yesterday.

The proposed project, which would be called Potomac Center, follows a succession of announcements of upscale retailers, such as the Harris Teeter grocery chain and a Jaguar dealership, setting up shop in the county, which has long played second fiddle to its neighbors to the north. The county is also developing its first luxury hotel, a conference center and a $56 million performing arts center that would be modeled after the famous La Scala opera house in Milan.

The county's recent focus on developing single-family homes that are selling for as much as $1 million, instead of the cheaper townhouses that shaped its inferior image in the 1980s and '90s, has increased the need for more expensive retail, said Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles).

The county's population has jumped to 332,555 from 280,813 in 2000, and in the same period, the median household income increased to $83,000 from about $66,000, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau figures.

"Then we tell people who are living in those big homes with the high-paying jobs to go to Tysons Corner to buy shoes," Nohe said, referring to the Fairfax County mall whose anchor stores include Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's.

Mills Corp. is proud of Potomac Mills, which was built in 1985 as the first in a chain of 18 outlet malls across the country and is one of Virginia's biggest tourist attractions. But Prince William needs more, Meiser said.

While visitors flock to Potomac Mills, a survey the company conducted showed that residents travel to Tysons Corner Center, Pentagon City in Arlington and Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax to shop. "We've talked to people who say that's inconvenient," Meiser said.

Meiser said he could not reveal which retailers could serve as anchors for the project but said the company is in talks with two or three "full-price, high-end" stores.

At a meeting Tuesday, the Board of County Supervisors will consider whether to allow Mills Corp. to continue developing its plan. The 95-acre tract that the company wants to develop is zoned for commercial use and is pegged for office space in a master plan for the area.

The land, just east of Interstate 95 and south of Opitz Boulevard, could be better utilized as a mixed-use development that Mills Corp. is calling a "lifestyle center," Meiser said.

Potomac Mills is nearby, on the other side of I-95.

"Offices and loft apartments overlook the street below where fashionable shops, bookstores, restaurants and sidewalk cafes open to the tree-lined main street," the proposal reads. More multi-level apartments would be "nestled in wooded areas," which would give the project a total of 433 units, according to the proposal. In all, there would be 650,000 square feet of retail and 200,000 square feet in office space. Potomac Mills is 1.25 million square feet.

Mills Corp. is not alone in the venture. Lerner Enterprises, the Bethesda-based developer behind Tysons Corner and Dulles Town Center, would be its partner.

The two companies are trying to nurture a business relationship and see the Potomac Center as a way to develop that connection, Meiser said.

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