Depending on one’s point of view, the Georgelas Group is either about to become a trailblazer of Tysons Corner development or a canary in a very expensive coal mine.
McLean-based Georgelas is the first applicant under Fairfax County’s new zoning for Tysons, and it is pushing a project that calls for 6 million square feet of high-rise development. In seeking approval, the company already has agreed to provide Fairfax County with just about everything planners and county staff have asked: units offered below market rates to improve affordability, a new fire station, athletic fields and environmental features. A public hearing took place Sept. 8 and the Planning Commission is scheduled to vote on the proposal Sept. 21.
In exchange for its offers, Georgelas is expected to win speedy approval for the rights to construct four apartment buildings, the first of which will be a 400-unit apartment tower built by Greystar on what is now a parking lot at the corner of Leesburg Pike and Spring Hill Road.
But while Georgelas and Greystar will likely be the first to market with new apartment towers, they will not have the opportunity to see what others achieve under the new Tysons land-use rules. Will every case proceed this smoothly? And can the county expect as many concessions from other developers? Here is some insight from five experts:
Barbara Byron, director of the Fairfax County office of community revitalization
Byron was quick to praise Georgelas for adhering to the new Tysons plan and agreeing to provide a breadth of public benefits — or proffers — including below-market rates for 20 percent of all the new housing units, nearly a half acre of public park space, storm water collection facilities and a new fire station, which will be incorporated into one of the buildings.
“I think in virtually every area in which we have asked them to step up, they have. So that does set a bar for others and it does that so the plan can be implemented,” she said.
Byron acknowledged that applicants following Georgelas have a tough act to follow, but said she expected that other builders to use many of the agreements Georgelas and the county had agreed to as a template.
“It’s helping both sides,” she said. “It’s helping the county find out how better to more fully implement the plan. It’s helping the private side understand the expectations.”
Mark C. Looney, partner, Cooley LLP
Looney, who represents other land owners seeking zoning changes in Tysons, said the county may have considered Georgelas favorably because only residential buildings — something county officials are eager to see — were considered in the first go-round. (Georgelas plans other uses that have not yet been considered by the county.) “You’re not under the same microscope as if you’re planning an office project or a mixed-use project with office,” Looney said.
But Looney also cautioned that future applicants may not take on as much as Georgelas did, especially if they are part of a new tax district being considered that would require Tysons land owners to pay for additional transportation costs. Georgelas, for instance, agreed to foot the bill for improvements to roads on its property even though it may end up paying the new transportation tax as well. “That may prove to be redundant if a broader financing plan can be put in place,” Looney said.
Stuart Mendelsohn, partner, Holland & Knight
Mendelsohn, a former member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said other landowners likely would take a hard look at the promises Georgelas was offering the county before they decided to move ahead on developing their own properties — particularly for property owners who already have revenue-producing office buildings, retail or hotels on their properties.
“I think everyone’s watching that — what are all the proffers, what are all the entitlements?”
Mendelsohn said both the county and Georgelas had incentives to finalize zoning for the developer’s first apartment building because, “it’s the one [project] out there that’s got a shot at being built by the time the rail arrives.” Negotiations for other applicants might not go as smoothly.
Stewart Schwartz, executive director, Coalition for Smart Growth
Schwartz said he was happy to see environmental and affordable housing groups lend their support to the Georgelas plan, something many Fairfax County development proposals fail to win.
“It is impressive that Georgelas is meeting all of these commitments,” he said.
Coming from a frequent critic of developers’ reliance on parking garages and suburban design, Schwartz’s statement speaks for itself. Georgelas, he said, offered a good start. But as other applications arrive, Schwartz said the focus ought to be on evolving Tysons into a walkable, pedestrian-friendly place. “I think the thing that we are urging the most for every developer and for the staff that we think very much about the human scale and the environment at the street. Are we creating interesting streets so that block after block it’s an interesting walk?” he said.
Jim Corcoran, president and chief executive, Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce
Corcoran said that because Georgelas was the county’s demonstration project, and the first Tysons applicant, it was in everyone’s interest to collaborate and ensure the project proceeded.
“Everyone from elected officials to the appointed officials to the developers and the builders have a large stake in this,” Corcoran said. “I think everyone can be proud of how everyone is working together … I think everyone is going in the same direction on this one.”
There is plenty left to negotiate, including the transportation costs, but Corcoran said he thought all parties want Tysons, “to be a showpiece for Fairfax County and I think it will be a showpiece for Fairfax County.”