An earlier version of this article used the incorrect name for the Woodlawn Estate in Mount Vernon, Va. That property, part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is called Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House, and is not related to the Woodlawn Manor House museum in Sandy Spring, Md.
The aging neighborhoods near George Washington's Mount Vernon estate are witnessing the start of a massive overhaul that over the next decade could add as many as 13,000 homes, plus restaurants, office buildings and new street grids.
The plans are part of an effort in Virginia's largest jurisdiction to revitalize a stretch of Richmond Highway long known for run-down motels, car-title loan shops and traffic congestion, and generate more tax revenue to fund schools and other services.
For the past decade, new development in Fairfax County has been concentrated in Tysons Corner, Reston and Merrifield. Now officials say a state road-widening project, plans for a $500 million county bus rapid transit route and a $40 million levee under construction that includes a park near the Cameron Run waterway will focus attention on the county's eastern edge.
A planning amendment unveiled in November and headed for a January public hearing envisions mixed-use developments, hotels and parks surrounding nine county bus rapid transit stations along Richmond Highway between Metrorail's Huntington Station and Fort Belvoir — currently a canyon of shopping plazas and fast-food restaurants.
The plans also include a 3.1-mile extension of the Yellow Line that would connect the Huntington station to the Hybla Valley section of Richmond Highway, in hopes of creating a pedestrian-friendly urban neighborhood akin to nearby Shirlington.
In the end, the area's population would nearly quadruple, to about 40,000 residents, county officials say.
“These are not dreams anymore; they’re expectations,” said Supervisor Dan Storck (D-Mount Vernon), whose district includes Richmond Highway. “We know that this kind of public investment is essential to increasing the amount of private investment that we need.”
So far, there have been varied reactions to the plans in surrounding communities, a mixture of working-class, mostly Latino and African American enclaves and subdivisions of wealthy professionals whose palatial homes offer stunning views of the Potomac River.
Advocates for affordable housing worry that land values in the area will skyrocket, displacing low-income residents and blue-collar businesses, especially since the state says it will need to acquire portions of about 175 residential and commercial properties as part of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s plan to widen a three-mile stretch of Richmond Highway between Jeff Todd Way and Napper Road.
But some residents see a more livable community forming.
"Right now, you have to get in your car to go anywhere," said JanaLee Sponberg, 71, who since 1980 has lived inside the 364-unit Huntington Club condominium apartment complex near the Huntington station. The 19-acre site is slated for a redevelopment that will result in 1,565 condominiums, apartments and townhouses, plus 500,000 square feet of retail space. The project, spearheaded by the condominium association, will allow residents to move into the new units or sell their stakes in the property when it's finished.
Nearby, another project approved by the county Board of Supervisors in October will add 767 apartments and a boat launch to Cameron Run. Several smaller developments are also in the works.
County officials are trying to market the area based on the corridor's rich American history. Besides Mount Vernon, the area includes Woodlawn Estate — once owned by Washington's nephew and step-granddaughter — and the Pope-Leighey House, designed by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Down the road at the Fort Belvoir complex, the 80-acre National Museum of the U.S. Army is scheduled to open in 2019.
“It’s always been my dream to create this cultural corridor,” said Storck, stopping during a recent tour of the highway in front of a mostly vacant office building near Woodlawn that he thinks would be an ideal site for a full-service hotel. “We need more tourists to come here.”
Advocates say they will push hard during the county approval process for requirements to include moderate and low-priced housing in the new projects. New, higher-end homes along some stretches of Richmond Highway have already driven up land prices, they say, and caused landlords in older, cheaper buildings to raise the rent.
“They have not analyzed the potential land values and rent impacts,” said Stewart Schwartz, director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “And they have not proposed new ideas to improve inclusionary zoning for affordable units where the new development takes place.”
Supervisor Jeff McKay (D-Lee), who also represents a portion of Richmond Highway, said those concerns will be addressed after the county approves the revised land plan, which it must do to boost its chances for federal funding needed for the bus rapid transit route that county officials consider crucial to the area’s revitalization. A vote is expected in the spring.
McKay said the corridor might benefit from the removal of some low-income apartments that are in disrepair. The county needs to strike a balance, he said, between luring development that draws more tax revenue and ensuring that current residents can stay.
“There are a lot of moving parts here, and we’re going to put in strict housing guidelines and strict environmental guidelines,” McKay said. “But I don’t want to waste any more time applying for the federal grant money. Without the grant money, we don’t have a BRT.”
Alison DeCourcey, director of United Community Ministries, said residents in the five mobile home parks along Fairfax’s portion of Richmond Highway are particularly vulnerable. “There is a real fear that those are going to be the first to go because they are the easiest,” she said.
Residents of Audubon Estates, one of the parks tucked behind a small development of new townhouses, seem resigned to the possibility of being uprooted.
“There’s nothing you can do about it,” said Hernán Fernandez, an auto mechanic who pays an $870 monthly lot fee for the mobile home he shares with his wife and two children. “When they tell us to go, we have to go. The person who has all the rights is the owner.”
Some in the area are preparing to leave. Abe Smith, pastor of the First AME Church on Richmond Highway, said his mostly African American congregation is looking to buy property elsewhere after 12 years of running ministries for neighborhood youngsters and the hungry.
The church recently learned from VDOT that part of its parking lot would be needed for the road-widening project, making it impossible to accommodate a congregation of 125 people, Smith said. With nearby land too expensive, the church is looking at other options.
“We’ve been doing great work in the community,” Smith said. “I don’t know where we’ll end up.”