If you are reading this article, then you obviously live or work somewhere near Richmond Highway and, thus, spend a fair amount of your life traveling back and forth on our little slice of Route 1 heaven. You probably also devote at least a little bit of your mental energy to pondering the future of Richmond Highway. I’m sure you’ve asked yourself things like: why don’t they make the traffic move better? Why they tearing down that building? What are they putting up over there? When did they open that business?
My job as the Executive Director of the Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation is to know who “they” are and to help “them” do it better. I’ve been on the job here for nearly three months and have spent that span of time learning about everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen along the 7.5-mile stretch of pavement from the Beltway to Fort Belvoir. In order to do my job effectively I need to go beyond the fact that something is getting built and understand who is taking on a project, how that person or company decided to move forward, and, ultimately, why they think the project will be profitable.
Through my meetings with literally dozens of county officials, property owners, lenders, developers, community leaders, and concerned citizens, I have heard the same message over and over again: Richmond Highway’s combination of convenient location, transportation access, and affordability relative to other parts of Northern Virginia) have made it a very attractive location for development. More importantly, Richmond Highway is now one of a very small number of places in the Washington metro area that fits the above description, as most others have been built out, are prohibitively expensive, or are located too far away from employment centers and/or public transit options.
At the same time that I have been learning all about the people, properties, and projects that are transforming the area my staff and I have been working on promotional materials that tell the Richmond Highway story in new ways. Through this process I have learned a number of dazzling facts about our neck of the woods, including:
- Fort Belvoir, with 26,000 employees, has eclipsed the Pentagon as the largest single Department of Defense employment site in the DC area;
- We have about 4 million square feet of retail space in the corridor, of which 95 percent are occupied;
- Since 2002 the employment growth rate in the corridor—excluding Fort Belvoir—has been 65 percent higher than the employment growth rate for the whole DC area;
- There has been more than $800 million of private investment in commercial real estate projects along the corridor since 2001;
- 27 percent of the hotel rooms on Richmond Highway are in hotels that have opened for business since 2009; and
- There are more than 2,500 housing units either under construction or currently proposed along the corridor by seven different developers.
If this all sounds a picture of a thriving, prosperous area, it should. In fact, we’re doing so well here that I have already found myself struggling to identify attractive sites on Richmond Highway for a number of development prospects. You may be asking yourself how it’s possible that a corridor with so many properties that appear ripe for redevelopment is lacking in sites to accommodate new developments.
There are five key reasons why revitalization remains difficult in spite of strong market demand:
- Many of the commercial parcels along Richmond Highway are too small and/or have lot depths that are too shallow to accommodate new development under current zoning and parking requirements.
- Significant portion of the corridor have environmental constraints like floodplain, wetlands, or poor soils that make development very expensive if not entirely impossible.
- The process for changing Comprehensive Plan and/or zoning designations to redevelop properties can be long and time-consuming, adding to the cost of achieving projects.
- Fairfax County has very tight restrictions—both from the Commonwealth and self-imposed—on how and when it uses its authority to take “problem” properties by eminent domain.
- Many property owners along the corridor are willing to wait for their property values to appreciate and are thus not very motivated to sell their properties.
I will be blogging regularly on Patch. I expect that most of my posts will examinesome combination of these five factors and (hopefully) offer insights into howwe can achieve effective revitalization with the support of the community.