Revitalization Efforts Come in Baby Steps

Crossing Route 50, between Patrick Henry Drive and Route 7, has proved challenging for pedestrians such as Andrew Horwath of Ontario, Canada.
Crossing Route 50, between Patrick Henry Drive and Route 7, has proved challenging for pedestrians such as Andrew Horwath of Ontario, Canada. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 5, 2007

Seven Corners, the shabby and sprawling commercial district in eastern Fairfax County, is showing small signs of new life. Work will begin soon on a pedestrian bridge across Route 50, and a bus depot will grace one end. A Chipotle Mexican Grill is nearly complete, and its new parking lot looks brilliantly fresh next to the cracked, dusty expanse of pavement all around.

Seven Corners is among a handful of aging business districts targeted for revitalization by county officials. But the effort there, in one of the county's most densely populated areas, is barely underway. The smaller improvements occurring now aren't part of a larger vision for Seven Corners, which has left some to wonder whether the county is serious about pumping new life into its declining areas.

What's happening at Seven Corners also reflects the fate of older districts across the Washington region, such as Wheaton in Montgomery County and Langley Park in Prince George's. Every inner suburb of Washington is plowing extravagant time and effort into some type of revitalization, from Tysons Corner to Chevy Chase to Landover. But in every one, other commercial cores -- such as Seven Corners -- remain in the shadows.

"The approach at Seven Corners has been very piecemeal," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "Seven Corners deserves the same level of attention that we've seen given to Tysons Corner. Even if you have to improve it incrementally for financial reasons, you have to have a plan."

Seven Corners, marked by dense garden apartments, aging medical office buildings and an array of run-down shopping strips, wasn't even slated to be included in the mission of Fairfax County's new Office of Commercial Revitalization and Reinvestment. But at Supervisor Penelope A. Gross's insistence, it was added to a study of nearby Baileys Crossroads, Gross said.

Yet Gross (D-Mason) defended the county's decision to move forward with two sizable and costly improvements at Seven Corners -- the pedestrian bridge and the bus center -- without a grander plan in place.

The pedestrian bridge, 20 years in the planning and with a price tag of almost $7 million, will cross the county's most dangerous stretch of highway for pedestrians: Route 50 between Patrick Henry Drive and Route 7. Three walkers were killed there last year. Although smart-growth advocates such as Schwartz say they'd rather see Route 50 narrowed and crosswalks added than a giant, exorbitant bridge, Gross and others said they weren't willing to wait any longer to save lives.

"We are dealing with 100 years of development," Gross said. "We are trying to fix it incrementally, and this is an important piece of the incremental fix. Any future fixes will be able to key into the fact that we've got a bus hub and a pedestrian bridge."

It's hard to argue against the need for a safer pedestrian crossing. During the afternoon rush, it takes only a few moments to witness a jaywalker cross Route 50 rather than walk west up the overpass and back down the other side. The route is favored by residents of the apartment buildings north of Route 50 trying to reach the bus stops to the south. As the busiest bus transfer point in Northern Virginia, Seven Corners also attracts shoppers who don't own cars or hold drivers' licenses, and they must cross busy roadways to reach such shopping destinations as National Wholesale Liquidators.

"It's a difficult crossing -- I just did it," said Rachel Saygbe of Alexandria, a Liberian native waiting for her bus and toting several large, hot-pink, plastic shopping bags. "It's dangerous, especially when you have a lot in your hands. You stand on one side for a while, and then you stand in the median for a while. It takes at least 10 minutes."

One of the uncomfortable realities of Seven Corners and its commercial future is that it abuts some of Fairfax County's denser stretches of apartments that house some of the county's lowest-income residents. It does not attract the same attention as Tysons, where thousands of affluent professionals work and where developers are poised to invest billions of dollars in condominiums, office space, shopping and infrastructure.

Yet Seven Corners is not far from several affluent neighborhoods: Sleepy Hollow Woods, Falls Church and Lake Barcroft. And although it is piecemeal -- examples include the Chipotle, a new Sunflower Vegetarian Restaurant and a Dogfish Head Alehouse -- private investment is occurring in Seven Corners. Business leaders say the county should do what it can to fit such investments into a larger plan for the district.

"There really hasn't been an approach of working with our existing business community to drive a deeper level of revitalization," said William D. Lecos, president of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. "It's not intended neglect. It's just harder to do."

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