The long-delayed development of nine acres of a major 14-acre tract in the heart of Arlington's Virginia Square neighborhood, an Orange Line Metro stop that has been largely bypassed by redevelopment, has moved closer to reality.
Two quarreling landowners agreed last week to combine and then sell their nine acres of potentially lucrative land there for high-rise development, which could begin as early as next year.
"It's a tremendous step, one I've been trying to get done for seven years," said John T. (Til) Hazel Jr., a prominent Northern Virginia lawyer-developer who represents the George Mason University Foundation, owner of six acres at the site.
"We've overcome the major obstacle," said Richard H. Swesnik, the chief partner of Virginia Square Ltd., owner of the three-acre Virginia Square Shopping Center. " . . . I see a happy ending here. I don't see anybody getting rich, but certainly a happy ending."
Until last week, the George Mason foundation, a fund-raising arm of the state university, and the shopping center owners had engaged in a feud over parking rights at the site, across Fairfax Drive from the Virginia Square Metro stop.
The dispute had created an impasse that many county and civic leaders predicted, as late as last Wednesday, would be resolved in court.
That prospect threatened to delay revitalization of the area, which has continued to languish at a time when other Orange Line neighborhoods in Arlington are seeing large construction projects.
"Well, I'll be darned," said Dave Hanlon, whose real estate firm is one of about 20 stores in the Virginia Square shopping center. "I'm surprised it's finally happening. No one foresaw it.
"In a way, it'll bring a kind of sadness . . . . There's a real sense of community here with the neighborhood, the elderly people especially. I kind of hate to see the old landmark demolished."
Negotiators for the two landowners predicted that one neighborhood institution, a Giant Food supermarket that county and community leaders have sought to retain, would remain at the site.
A spokesman for Giant, which has a lease until 2020, could not be reached for comment, but Swesnik was emphatic that the store would remain. "It's going to stay, under any event," he said. "The county wants it, the citizens want it. It's going to stay."
The foundation originally owned 11 acres at the site, but it gave five to the state for the George Mason University Law Center.
The remaining six acres, currently used as a parking lot for the shopping center and the university, were earmarked for a sale or lease that would raise money for the university.
"Now, the dispute doesn't make any difference because the land is too valuable to fight over who has parking and who doesn't," said Swesnik. "The time has come to sell."
On Thursday, Hazel and Swesnik made what they called a "handshake agreement" that could change the landscape of the 14-acre site bordered by Fairfax Drive, Washington Boulevard, Kirkwood Road and North Monroe Street. Another 2.5 acres owned by six small businesses on a corner of the Washington Boulevard side are not involved. The pact, Hazel and Swesnik said, establishes a price that they expect to receive for their consolidated nine acres and a formula for splitting the proceeds. They declined to disclose either, but they said they have received several purchase offers, including one from a front-runner that Hazel described as "very solid."
"It's someone I'm sure the county would be very happy with and the nearby residents would be very happy with," said Swesnik.
"It's not yet a final action," Hazel said. "We can't do anything until there's an agreement with a buyer," said Swesnik.
The ultimate sale of the land is subject to ratification by the landowners' boards of directors. Any development at the site would require approval by the Arlington County Board, which approved a long-range development plan for the site more than two years ago.
Hazel and Swesnik said they anticipate that the buyer will put up high-rise office and residential buildings, with some retail outlets.
That is the mix the board approved in July 1983, when it adopted, after years of community study and debate, the Virginia Square sector plan, a detailed framework for long-range development. Because of anxiety in many Metro-stop neighborhoods about the loss of community service stores, the board added some extra conditions in anticipation of the area's redevelopment. In return for a developer's including a supermarket, the county would consider allotting extra density at the site.
"If developers come through with something consistent with the plans the county laid out, I feel it's something the county would be enthusiastic about," said County Board Chairman John G. Milliken. "A big part of that is keeping the Giant there."
He added that the landowners' agreement "sounds like a step forward, but it also sounds like there are many steps to come.