Mixing Up New Plan for Springfield

Many buildings near a Springfield interchange flyover would be torn down to make way for the new development.
Many buildings near a Springfield interchange flyover would be torn down to make way for the new development. (Susan Biddle - Twp)
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 28, 2006

Achieving a sense of place would seem an impossible task in an area best known for a highway interchange so gigantic and soul-defeating that it has a name all its own.

But that is what is being attempted in the shadow of the Mixing Bowl, where developers and local officials are seeking to transform Springfield from a dreary hodgepodge of motels, fast-food joints and discount stores into a vibrant hub for southern Fairfax County.

A developer is planning a high-rise mix of apartments, offices, shops and a hotel hard by Interstate 95. The new owner of the timeworn Springfield Mall is proposing an overhaul that would add homes and offices to the sprawling site. And the Army is considering underused land nearby as the new home for thousands of well-paying jobs.

If the plans are realized, Springfield could become the region's latest example of an unremarkable suburban crossroads being converted into a miniature city, joining Silver Spring, Bethesda, Tysons Corner and other places where high-rise residences mix with offices, shops and restaurants near the Capital Beltway and the Metro.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this "build up, not out" vision as ambitious as in Springfield, where the convergence of a half-dozen major roads and highways has long undermined coherent planning and any sense of identity. Until recently, the closest the area had to a gateway landmark was a giant inflatable sheep advertising a mattress store that has since closed.

But Springfield leaders hope that the area's location near so many highways, as well as a transit station, could be turned to its advantage at a time when commuters are looking to shorten their trips. The time is right, the leaders say, considering that work is almost complete on the eight-year, $676 million project to untangle the Mixing Bowl, the juncture of three interstates -- 95, 395 and 495 -- just north of central Springfield. In addition, the military is to relocate thousands of uniformed and civilian personnel to southern Fairfax in the next decade.

"For years, people ended up in Springfield not because they called it home but because they got lost and took the wrong ramp," said Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), who represents the area. "Folks finally realize that this is your version of the classic 19th-century place where the railroads come together. It's a transportation hub. Folks have suddenly realized it can be a destination unto itself."

The centerpiece of the desired transformation is "Midtown Springfield," a proposal by the developer KSI for nine acres now occupied by a motel, discount wine store, near-vacant office tower, veterinary clinic and two restaurants.

The proposal, which is to go before county supervisors in September, calls for three towers of 21 to 25 stories with 800 apartments and condominiums, a 160-room hotel, 40,000 square feet of offices and up to 100,000 square feet of retail space, all surrounding a central public plaza and gallery or auditorium. Parking garages and landscaping would buffer the buildings from I-95 and the huge flyover ramp that looms behind the site.

Greg Riegle, a lawyer representing KSI, said the developers recognize the challenge of drawing residents and shoppers to an area that will at least initially be marooned among less appealing buildings. He said they are confident that more redevelopment would follow.

"For decades, the community has articulated a desire to see Springfield function more as a traditional town with a mix of uses . . . that gives you reason to be there," he said. "We think the project will redefine the market."

To the extent that Springfield has had an anchor, it has been the big mall. Once a popular draw, it has become saddled with a reputation as a hangout for unruly teenagers and has lost shoppers from the relatively affluent neighborhoods surrounding it to Tysons Corner and Pentagon City.

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