It is hard to imagine the clogged roads and bleak streetscape of the Seven Corners section of Fairfax County transformed into a trio of villages featuring bike paths, outdoor cafes and as many as 6,000 new homes.
But that’s what county leaders are going for in an ambitious planning effort — inspired by ongoing work in Tysons Corner — that seeks to rescue another aging Northern Virginia suburb that once defined the country’s obsession with driving to the mall.
Strip malls and faded big-box stores would give way to new residences, retail spots and parks, potentially generating hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue that county officials say is sorely needed to fund schools and other services. With little open space for new subdivisions, older communities like Fairfax are increasingly trying to reinvent decaying neighborhoods as a way to draw residents, businesses and energy.
“We’re going to grow over time,” said Elizabeth Haag, deputy director of Fairfax’s Office of Community Revitalization. “The question is, where do we direct that growth?”
But the idea for Seven Corners has already sparked heated community debate, prompting two neighborhood leaders to challenge longtime county supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason) in the coming election.
Critics say that schools and streets will be overwhelmed by new residents and traffic. They contend that the closest Metro station is too far away to adequately serve a dense, new neighborhood and warn that higher-priced homes and apartments could push out many of the area’s lower-income, predominantly immigrant residents.
The county planning commission is scheduled to vote in July on whether to move forward with the redevelopment plan. Some residents want officials to first focus on fixing traffic congestion in a famously confusing intersection currently traversed by about 110,000 cars a day.
“People who moved to Falls Church do not want a San Francisco or a downtown Washington,” said Catriona Macdonald, head of one of the area’s six homeowners associations.
“We moved to Falls Church for old-growth trees and yards that are big enough for kids to play in.”
Seven Corners Shopping Center, built in the 1950s where Routes 50 and 7 meet, was once celebrated as the Washington region’s largest mall. Today, it includes a Barnes & Noble, discount clothing shops and a Home Depot that was the site of one of the 2002 sniper murders.
Located just outside the city of Falls Church, the shopping center is hard to access by foot. In the years before the county built a pedestrian bridge over Route 50, fatalities were a regular occurrence.
The redevelopment plan would replace the shopping center and other familiar, if faded, landmarks with three villages, each with its own street grid connected by a “spine road” to take local traffic off Routes 50 or 7. The villages — currently named Town Center, Willston Village Center and Leesburg Pike Village — would include townhouses, apartments, stores, restaurants and outdoor plazas, creating bustle in place of big-box stores, half-empty parking lots, vacant offices and the relentless hiss of traffic.
“It’s a grand idea,” said John Thillmann, an urban-planning consultant who chaired a community task force that hashed out many of the plan’s details.
“Conceptually, we wanted something like Shirlington,” Thillmann said, referring to a portion of Arlington that has been similarly revamped. “This area has the possibility of becoming a really unique and special place.”
It would take decades to create that new reality. But construction has begun on a Hampton Inn & Suites hotel along Route 50, and plans are already underway for a five-story apartment/retail project on the same block.
The entire overhaul “won’t happen overnight, because it didn’t get that way overnight,” said Ed McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute.
But, he added, the idea puts Fairfax in a better position to attract businesses and shoppers. “The future belongs to Main Streets, town centers and mixed-use developments,” McMahon said.
In all, 218 acres would be redeveloped. Seven Corners Shopping Center would be replaced by at least one hotel, apartments, office buildings and a central plaza. Two low-income apartment complexes off Willston Drive would be turned into a mix of market-rate and affordable apartments, with restaurants, offices and another plaza nearby. The Sears site and some offices along Route 50 would become townhouses, restaurants with outdoor seating and a park.
John Koshivos, a vice president at Hilton Worldwide who helped decide to build along Route 50, cited Tysons Corner as an example of a former driving destination that is now attracting more pedestrian-oriented development.
The Seven Corners area is “starting to take that turn,” Koshivos said. “And I think people are starting to pay attention to it.”
Motorists can spend long, agonizing minutes trying to get in or out of the oddly shaped, multipronged intersection that gives Seven Corners its name. It’s a maze of roadways, where Route 50 suddenly ducks beneath ramps connecting to cross streets and a wrong move can mean trying for a U-turn against a seemingly unending river of cars.
“We call that ‘The Monster,’ ” said Jane Martin, one of the residents concerned about increased density who gestured one afternoon toward a growing cluster of cars blocking the intersection while someone tried to turn left.
On a recent Friday, traffic backed up for blocks as county police officers directed drivers headed to a mosque. Other motorists tried to skirt the waiting line of cars in order to get to the shopping center. Horns honked. People cursed.
State transportation officials who grade the quality of service on roads and intersections have given this one an F.
And they say that by 2040, if no changes are made, it will take twice as long to get through the intersection.
The person tasked with unsnarling the mess is Tom Biesiadny, Fairfax’s transportation director. His department has launched a $3 million study on how to implement a street grid that would include bike paths and, possibly, circulator buses.
Biesiadny said the goal would be to reduce delays in Seven Corners by half — moving the state’s service level grade up to a C or a D.
“It’s a very complicated intersection,” he said. “I’m not sure the people who designed that interchange really envisioned what traffic might be like today.”
As is the case with Tysons, Biesiadny said, developers would have to agree to pay for a large chunk of the road improvements as a condition of their projects being approved.
Residents who oppose the redevelopment have argued during public meetings that Seven Corners is too far from the East Falls Church Metro station — about a mile — to make it suitable for the type of pedestrian-oriented projects that have worked in Arlington and Rockville.
Thillmann says the train station is close enough. “It took me 17 minutes to walk there,” he said. With a bus, “you can jump on that and be to the Metro in five minutes.”
Although the plan calls for preserving affordable housing in the area where two-low income apartment complexes would be redeveloped, the mostly immigrant residents who live there worry that they will not be able to afford to stay.
The household incomes that would qualify for the new apartments range from 60 percent of the area median to 120 percent of that amount — currently between about $67,000 and $135,000 a year.
Jim Edmondson, who manages a 284-unit complex that could grow to 900 homes under the plan, said some displacement is inevitable without additional government housing subsidies to lower that income threshold.
“Economic feasibility is what drives the train here,” Edmondson said, “and the reality is you can’t offer low rents with the cost of building all of those units.”
The concern permeates the adult English classes at the old Willston Elementary School, which operates as a multicultural center a block away from Route 50.
“There is already a community here,” said Enma Peña, who was among the adults learning English one recent evening. She was referring not only to residents but also to a Latin American grocery store and restaurants that have opened.
“All this that’s nearby — the people like that it’s here. Everything is already central to us.”
Upstairs, a group of elderly Vietnamese immigrants shared their concerns about what some called “the new city” planned for their old neighborhood. “I’m very afraid,” Anh Dao Tran said through a translator inside the Vietnamese Resettlement Association offices. “Where do I go from here?”
Gross, who is seeking her sixth term in November, said she’s worried about the possibility of displacement. “We need to take a look at that,” she said.
“There is a concern whether the lowest-income people will be served. That was not the intention.”
Gross initially pushed for a controversial proposal to close the Willston center and replace it with an office building that houses county services, which she said would help spur retail development nearby. She now says she is open to keeping some aspects of the multicultural center there while also allowing the building to be used for pre-kindergarten classes.
That compromise has angered some backers of the redevelopment plan, who say an office building would add more commercial value. And it does not satisfy local parents, who are frustrated by crowded classrooms and want to reopen the building as a school.
“It’s a very complicated situation,” Gross said.
Martin, 68, grew up near Seven Corners and remembers the neighborhood in its glory days, when people dressed up to have to lunch at the Birdcage, a rooftop restaurant where the Sears is now located and which offered panoramic views.
“It was a big deal having the mall right there” during the late 1950s and 1960s, Martin said.
Today, she is among a group of neighbors who say the redevelopment will bring unwanted disruption. Although they like the idea of having new shops and restaurants within walking distance from their homes, the appeal is overshadowed by fears of even more choking traffic.
Their next opportunity to express opposition comes June 9, when Jessica Swanson will challenge Gross in the Democratic primary.
Swanson, 32, said her concerns about Seven Corners motivated her candidacy. So did Mollie Loeffler, 45, a one-time Republican activist who will compete as an independent in the November general election.
Both candidates accuse Gross of leading Seven Corners down the wrong path.
“It’s more density than we’re comfortable with,” Swanson said. “There is a sense that there are a lot of missed opportunities in getting that site right.”