Fairfax Ponders Restrictions on Big-Box Stores
Developers Might Face Stepped-Up Oversight

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 18, 2007

From Springfield to Reston, big-box retail stores are a fixture of Fairfax County's commercial corridors. Eight Targets. Six Home Depots. Five Best Buys. The list goes on, and the design is largely the same: hulking one-story buildings, sprawling parking lots and not a pedestrian in sight.

One would think that it's a bit late for the region's largest jurisdiction to reshape the way large-scale stores are built, but Fairfax is considering doing exactly that. Officials are looking at making big-box stores build up instead of out, fit better into existing neighborhoods and leave less of a blemish on the environment -- and the eye. And with more and more proposals popping up to redevelop aging shopping districts into vibrant town centers, there is likely to be ample opportunity, officials say, to put the new restrictions to work.

"It isn't to say 'absolutely no' to big boxes," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, which will hold a public hearing Monday on the issue. "It's to say, 'Shouldn't this be subject to review?' Especially as we're looking at revitalization. There may be parts of the county where a big box would completely stymie our efforts to revitalize a particular area."

Connolly cited as an example the Kmart in Annandale -- a low, sprawling store with a huge parking lot in the heart of downtown. The popular Wegmans off Lee Highway in central Fairfax, in contrast, is well served by roads and hasn't been plunked down in the middle of a vibrant, dense community, he said. Best Buy and Barnes & Noble at the Spectrum at Reston Town Center are popular and attractive, but the parking lot is too small to serve regional stores in addition to such neighborhood fare as Starbucks, La Madeleine and Einstein Bros. Bagels.

"It can be frustrating," said Bud Bumgardner, 54, an engineer who was purchasing an electronic router last week at Best Buy. "It's always crowded at lunchtime."

Under consideration is a proposal to require any retailer of 80,000 square feet or more -- the typical Target is about 120,000 square feet -- to seek the county's permission before building. Supervisors would be free to reject a store deemed too large for its neighborhood or the surrounding road network. They would also be in a position to demand, in exchange for approval, less sprawling designs, multistory buildings, parking garages and pedestrian and transit access.

A shopping plaza within a residential development, for example, might be a good place for a neighborhood Safeway, Giant or Harris Teeter-- typically 50,000 to 70,000 square feet -- but a terrible location for the largest Wal-Mart or Target, which can eat up as much as 250,000 square feet, include grocery sections and pharmacies and attract shoppers (and traffic) from miles around.

"There is a growing interest in walkability of communities and the viability of communities," said Anita Kramer, director of retail at the District-based Urban Land Institute, the development industry's research and education arm. "They are all concepts that I think are gaining more popularity in terms of how it affects our lives and how it affects our communities' lives."

The Fairfax proposal is similar to policies in place in communities across the region and nation -- including Prince William and Montgomery counties. In Montgomery, the campaign to restrict big-box stores was driven largely by a union representing grocery workers, who were seeking to bar Wal-Mart from the community. In Fairfax, officials say the issue is purely a question of better design and better use of land in an increasingly urbanizing county of over 1 million people.

"What people see as objectionable about big boxes is the single-use, very consuming space that really doesn't address the transportation challenges and doesn't connect with the surrounding neighborhood," said Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), whose district includes Reston. The question, she added, is: "Can you have those same uses in a different footprint?"

The proposal has generated concern among retailers, shopping center owners and commercial developers who say strong constraints could limit a business's ability to redevelop property and attract new, successful tenants.

But the larger goal -- creating more-urban commercial districts that blend in with existing neighborhoods -- is already being pursued in the private sector. It's what customers want, and it's the best way to develop in urban or revitalizing areas, several people in the industry said.

"Every large-sized retailer in America today is focusing on fitting into areas that have a more dense population," said Arthur Fuccillo, executive vice president of development at Lerner Enterprises, which owns a number of retail developments in the region, including the Spectrum at Reston Town Center. "They're getting creative in store design. And they're doing it so that they can serve the retail needs of that particular demographic."

Best Buy, for example, operates an urban location in the Tenleytown area of Northwest Washington that is not surrounded by parking. The store sits right on Wisconsin Avenue and blends seamlessly with surrounding properties. Reston residents are hoping for a similar configuration at the Spectrum, which Lerner is considering redeveloping into high-rises with condominiums, shops and offices.

"The stores are certainly popular and convenient," said Mike Corrigan, president of the Reston Citizens Association.

Fairfax officials insist that they're not trying to block big-box stores entirely. That would be foolish, all agreed, as they are hugely popular with consumers and generate tax dollars. Their success in Fairfax -- and across the country -- makes that fact abundantly clear.

"There is obviously a large population that supports them," Kramer said. "So the question is: How do you allow those stores, and what are the creative ways of incorporating those stores into communities so they still remain the type of communities that people want to be a part of?"

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company