In Vienna, Va., there is a mile-and-a-half-long cluster of supermarkets, storefronts and shopping malls--most of them a story high--called "the strip." It houses all of Vienna's commercial activity. It is crowded and getting old.
Just to the east is Tysons Corner, a 21st Century world of glass, concrete and traffic jams. And Tysons Corners is growing.
For the firmly established residential community of Vienna, the build-up of Tysons Corners has brought a marked drop in the quality of life. Traffic through the small town has become heavy with commuters, and noise and pollution abound.
But many residents have a more serious fear: that the tide of high-rise development will wash down their own main street, Maple Avenue.
"We are very concerned about the expansion of Tysons Corner," said John J. Mitchell, president of the Westbriar Civic Association of Vienna. "We think the limitations in the town's zoning ordinance should be kept, because we don't want the development spreading any farther."
No one denies that the pressure is there. Tycon I and II, large-scale developments almost visible to Vienna residents above the treetops, have gone in just east of town on Old Courthouse Road. And the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has not been able to hold development there. The trees on the land along the western edge of Old Courthouse are coming down and the builders moving in, within sight of a number of Vienna homes.
Most of Vienna's commercial core was developed during the 1950s, and many of the buildings are well past their prime. With interest rates falling and commercial development blooming to the east and west, Vienna residents foresee a major burst of redevelopment in their town within the next five to 10 years. And they are worried that it could destroy their home-town atmosphere.
"We have profitable businesses in town that have grown and developed," said Mayor Charles A. Robinson Jr. "And as the land along the Route 123 corridor is becoming more valuable, we expect to see many rezonings in the near future."
In an effort to take control of redevelopment before it gets started, the Vienna town council plans to appoint a blue-ribbon citizen's committee within the next few weeks. The committee, which will include residents, developers and businessmen, will review Vienna's zoning ordinance to see if it is adequate to protect the town's residential nature while allowing commmercial redevelopment that is both attractive and capable of expanding the town's limited tax base.
"This does not signal a change in policy, and it is not a group designed to accelerate the redevelopment of our commerically zoned land," said Robinson. "We want a knowledgeable group, one that represents the collective thinking of the town council."
The council members, however, may be having trouble putting together a committee that reflects their own collective thinking. The ordinance to establish the committee was passed four months ago, and names of candidates started circulating then, but no one has been appointed yet.
Robinson has said that he will not support an increase in the town's height limit, which stands at three stories, or an increase in the amount of land zoned for commercial use. But other council members recognize that they may need to compromise on some issues, particularly because the business commmunity has hopes that the ordinances will be loosened up.
"If they want to cluster all their commercial space on the strip, keep the height limitation, increase parking requirements and set-backs, there won't be any redevelopment," said Suzanne Paciulli, a commercial and industrial Realtor being considered for the committee. "That's just doing everything opposite" of what needs to be done.
As land values in Vienna have increased, so have the costs of redevelopment. One small, decaying shopping mall on the strip is up for sale for $1 million. But Paciulli said no one is interested because, under current zoning, it would be impossible to tear the shopping center down and put in one that would bring a sufficient return on the investment.
"The town's got a real problem," said Paciulli. "They are going to have to come up with some incentives, like increasing the height limitation so that structured parking would be affordable, or decreasing requirements for open space."
The business community also would like to see more land available for commercial development. Paciulli said there is only one vacant commercial lot in the town, but there are others that could be used for commercial space, many of them residential lots too close to retail centers for single-family homes.
"That's where a transitional use--such as low-density office buildings--could provide a permanent buffer for the residential areas," Paciulli said. "But the homeowners don't want to see it. They don't want any more land zoned commercial."
Feelings in Vienna run deep. There has not been one acre of residential land rezoned for commercial use for 20 years, and most of the town residents want to keep it that way. An application to rezone a vacant lot next to the Marco Polo restaurant was denied by the council last year at the urgings of the Malcolm-Windover Civic Association and, as a result , the town will be going to court in June to defend the decision.
"The majority of residents want to keep Vienna as residential as possible," said James H. Tate, president of the Malcolm-Windover Civic Association. "The development of Tysons has brought the business community right up to the town line, and it is not something we desire. I think most residents would also agree to keeping the height limitation at three stories."
For the redevelopment committee to do its job, there will have to be compromises.
"We don't want to become another Crystal City or Roslyn, but we recognize that the only way to expand the commercial space is to go laterally into the neighborhoods or vertically," said E. Ross Buckley, a member of the town council. "We want to hold the line on Tysons Corners, but we do need some redevelopment of the commercial core to improve the tax base. There is a natural inclination, on the part of the council, to expand the commerical area because there's not enough revenue from residential property taxes to run a viable town government."