Worried about density, residents in the Seven Corners area of Northern Virginia are pushing to scale down a redevelopment plan meant to ease traffic congestion at one of the region’s worst intersections while creating new businesses and as many as 6,000 homes.
In an alternative proposal submitted last week to Fairfax County officials, leaders of five area homeowners associations argue that there should be about 20 percent fewer homes built when the Seven Corners plan is finished during the next several decades.
That could spell trouble for 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.
Seven Corners is currently defined by an infamously gnarled intersection where about 110,000 cars pass through per day, and where Arlington Boulevard, Leesburg Pike, Wilson Boulevard, Sleepy Hollow Road and Hillwood Avenue converge.
County planners have envisioned a remodeled urban core where strip malls and faded big-box stores 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.
But opposition from some nearby residential areas has grown. In addition to the call for less residential density, the alternative proposal calls for a former elementary school in the neighborhood to be returned to the county school system and for all 589 low-income apartments in the area to be replaced with comparable affordable housing.
It also asks for guarantees that new local roads will be built promptly to alleviate the extra traffic congestion many residents worry will come with that many new homes in an area that sits about a mile away from the East Falls Church Metro station — a distance they say is too far for many people to want to walk.
“Any change is going to affect transportation, but it’s got to be done in the right way,” said Denise Patton Pace, a homeowner who is among 200 area residents who have so far signed an online petition launched last week to support the alternative proposals.
County planning officials are preparing to decide on the Seven Corners plan on July 15.
Earlier this month, county Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason), who has championed the current plan, faced an aggressive Democratic primary challenge that was largely rooted in community opposition to the level of density proposed.
Although Gross survived that effort from neighborhood activist Jessica Swanson, she faces another challenge in the November general election from independent candidate Mollie Loeffler, another neighborhood leader who has voiced concerns about the plan.
Gross, who appointed the community task force of area residents and property owners that conceived the original plan, has shown willingness to change some elements.
She has backed away from her initial push to transform the site of the former Willston Elementary School into an office building that would house some county services.
Gross now supports putting two buildings on the site: a high-rise elementary school and an office building. The office building would house county human-services agencies helping the same populations served by the school. It also would house the nonprofit groups that operate a multicultural center inside the old Willston school building.
On Monday, Gross said that she has tried to be flexible about density but worries that developers will not see the area as a potential magnet for new restaurants or stores if there aren’t enough people living a short walk from those kinds of businesses.
“In order to finance their projects, they have to have a certain density that gives them the return they need,” Gross said. She said she asked the neighborhood leaders who wanted lower density to consider ways to reduce the amount of new homes by no more than 15 percent.
“Twenty percent may make the proposal uneconomic,” Gross said.
Catriona McCormack, president of the Ravenwood Citizens’ Association homeowners group, said there is room to lower the density proposals; she argued that developers who weighed in on the Seven Corners plan sought the highest density levels possible in case those levels were later lowered.
“It’s a business negotiation,” she said.
McCormack also argued that reducing the new homes by 20 percent would still give the area a population density close to what’s in Shirlington — a high-density area of Arlington County that has become a thriving retail district.
It will be years before any aspects of the plan are implemented, but frustration around the effort appears to be growing.
John Thillmann, an urban planning consultant who led the community task force appointed by Gross, said he’s worried the Seven Corners plan will never happen. He angrily called the opposition “discouraging.”
“We listened to experts and then we came up with recommendations after a year of study,” Thillmann said. “These people spent six months coming up with something they pulled out of their heads. You tell me which makes more sense.”