Suburban Redevelopment in Merrifield Wins NYTimes Nod

EYA Townhomes in the Mosaic district

Taking notice of redevelopment in the Merrifield area of Fairfax County, The New York Times has suggested that this “suburban wasteland in Virginia” is at last getting an urban feel.

The centerpiece of the suburban makeover is the 31-acre Mosaic district, a project of Columbia, S.C.-based Edens, a private retail developer. When fully built out, the mixed-use project will include 500,000 square feet of retail and 1,000 residential units. Writes Alison M. Rice for the NYTimes:

In the Mosaic District, Edens grouped its tenants by type, clustering specialty grocers such as MOM’s Organic Market close to a butcher, fish market and wine shop, for example. “Mixed use has relied on food of all kinds as its primary anchor, from Whole Foods to Harris Teeter and restaurants of all types,” said Maureen McAvey, a retail specialist with the Urban Land Institute in Washington. “As bookstores closed, food has become even more important” to retail development.

Trendy new retail concepts are great, but they may not prove enduring. What Merrifield still really needs is the sought-after “walkability” factor, and that, in Rice’s appraisal, remains elusive. “Intended as a pedestrian-friendly town center and less than a mile from a Metro station,” she writes, “Mosaic is still best reached for many visitors by car or bus, rather than on foot, because of traffic on nearby roads.”

Six decades of disastrous land use decisions will not be reversed by a single project. The vast quilt that is Fairfax County, home to more than one million residents, can be repaired only one patch at a time. Fortunately, developers like Eden are quick to respond to changing market preferences and local government leadership seems willing to let the county evolve.


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15 responses to “Suburban Redevelopment in Merrifield Wins NYTimes Nod”

  1. The Merrifield area was ripe for redevelopment. It was an older area with both industrial and commercial buildings scattered among apartments and older homes. It came before Tysons and that was fortunate. The County learned some big lessons – developers will promise anything to get density. However, they often don’t deliver. This experience gave the County reason to write a tighter plan for Tysons — that should help the latter be more successful.

    The development seems quite nice. Fairfax County used its first and only TIFF with a small portion of the area, but with backup taxes on the developer should the increase in value be insufficient to handle the debt service. Much of the development is beyond the quarter mile TOD area, defined by the County. So there may not be as much walking as people are projecting. But all and all, not a bad project.

  2. thinking about TIFFs. Do TIFFs essentially offload the costs of services like police, transit, etc to other taxpayers?

    I’m fast coming to the conclusion that growth is paid for by both new and existing taxpayers in taxes and quality of life.

    Most development seeks to locate in an area where the infrastructure and services already exist and want both ramped up to serve their development but almost invariably expect taxpayers to pay that cost.

    And I’m also not convinced that higher density is less resource intensive that …and here is where I become less certain – than lower density – although I have absolutely no qualms to declare exurban suburban development that commutes to urban core jobs – as de-facto sprawl and clearly more expensive if you include the cost of the commutes.

    and then of course, we have the most “out there” idea (in my view) that if you build exurban bedroom communities “dense” with so called “Smart Growth” that it will be “better”, more efficient, less demanding of the transportation infrastructure.

    “Smart growth” in an exurban area in order to have minimally cost-effective transit (is there such a thing?) must have 8du and who of those that commute to suburbia are going to buy a townhouse or condo rather than the holy grail of a single family residence in a “nice” neighborhood with “good” schools?

    The basic problem that we have IMHO is that for all the time and effort put forth in support of Smart Growth – compelling numbers have never really been generated so we continue with assertions with little or no evidence. It’s become more of what some what to believe that anything that is proven conclusively to be more cost-effective.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    Don’t you just love New Yorkers and New York Times reporters? They talk down their nose about “suburban wastelands”. If you’ve ever been to the South Bronx you can see a real wasteland. Essentially a third world country in the middle of NYC. Then, they’ll decry the racism in the south. Meanwhile, three of the most segregated cities in the US are in or around New York (with NYC itself being the third most segregated):

    In 1987 I bought a three bedroom house just off Shreve Rd in the Merrifield area for $146,000. I could walk to the Metro station at Dunn Loring and get to my job downtown. I wonder how many three bedroom houses in NYC sold for $146,000 in 1987? Living in that suburban wasteland was really terrible!

    Bacon is not much better with his prattling about “disastrous land use decisions”. Ask Jim where the land use decisions have not been disastrous. First, he’ll name cities. He forgets that Park Avenue in NYC was single family housing (i.e. suburbs) until the 1920s. Now, it has high density residential housing. You just have to be a billionaire to buy any. How very non-disastrous. Or, Jim will tell you about Seaside, FL. One wonders if Bacon has ever actually been there. It’s a tiny place nowhere near jobs with small homes (called cottages) starting at about $1M.

    It’s funny how all of North America has become mired in disastrous land use decisions – including Bacon’s home county of Henrico, VA.

    Maybe functional human settlement occurs over time as density increases. Maybe the land use decisions at 1,000 per sq mi are actually very rational on the way to higher density. Maybe pre-density Merrifield was a perfectly rational way to allocate land before there was enough density to allocate the land better.

    LarryG gets lost again in the, “I’m fast coming to the conclusion that growth is paid for by both new and existing taxpayers in taxes and quality of life.”.

    The median family income for families in the Census Designated Place called Merrified is $74,116. Nobody is paying for these surplus citizens. They are paying for others by paying more in taxes than they consume in government services.

  4. Disastrous land use decisions… er, like forbidding higher-density zoning around the Dunn Loring metro stop? If past Fairfax County boards hadn’t been so auto-centric and density-phobic in their outlook, Merrifield could look a lot more like the Ballston corridor than it does now.

    I certainly don’t hold up Henrico as a model for superlative land use — that’s a canard. Among urban areas, I’d look to Old Town Alexandria, the Fan (Richmond) and Ghent (Norfolk). For re-developing the suburbs, I’d look to Arlington. For revitalizing old urban areas, I’d point to Shockoe Bottom and Manchester in Richmond.

    One key point to remember: You can’t freeze the “perfect” land use in amber. Land uses must be allowed to evolve to reflect changing economic circumstances and consumer preferences. Fairfax (and other counties that model their zoning codes on Fairfax’s) makes it exceedingly difficult to recycle old subdivisions. If Park Ave. in Manhattan evolved from single family dwellings into high-rises, it’s because NYC planners were wise enough to allow the real estate marketplace to function fairly freely.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      There was no demand for high density housing around Merrifield in the 1980s or early 1990s. Directly across from the metro was a small farm with horses. Zoning wouldn’t have made a bit of difference.

      Old Town Alexandria was settled in 1695. It’s had more than 300 years to build a demand for density.

      Park Ave didn’t become high density because of zoning decisions, it became high density because of demand.

      Arlington was such an economic bust that the federal government gave it back to Virginia in 1846. The brilliant Rosslyn Ballston corridor was a mess until the mid 1990s. Arlington County didn’t have a zoning epiphany, demand just caught up to that area.

      I’ll say you can’t freeze the perfect land use in amber. Demand for land grows radially from the urban core. There is always an economic tension between demand for high density living units close to the urban core and demand for lower density units further from the core. However, as long as the population keep rising so will density.

      Proximity to the urban core is what gave Old Town its population density. Ditto for the Rosslyn – Ballston corridor and, now, Merrifield.

      This has nothing to do with “disastrous land use decision”. It has to do with a growing population and radial demand.

      Detroit is zoned for high density. Does it exhibit the functional human settlement patterns you crave?

      1. well there is one thing you have to have for density and that is water/sewer infrastructure which is interesting in a couple of ways.

        First, it has to be planned and paid for up-front ..and

        second, it was a pretty big challenge back in 1695 when while sewer was gravity flow, pumps to put fresh water in towers
        required electricity.

        ” D.E. McComb: recognized as the first American engineer who ventured forth to build large-diameter sewers of concrete. He was the superintendent of sewers for Washington D.C. In 1883, under McComb’s guidance, a 15×17½-foot concrete sewer (with full brick lining) was designed; it was built in 1885. ”

        drinking water: ” Water towers appeared around the late 19th century, as building height rose, and steam, electric and diesel-powered water pumps became available. As skyscrapers appeared, they needed rooftop water towers”

        so these things do not just “happen” in a cityscape. There has to be a plan to do it and out in the exurbs – you’ll find there is no density without water/sewer and again.. it has to be explicitly planned and funded.

        So that puts some additional spin on “disasters land-use decisions”.

        In our area, subdivisions with 1/4 to 1/2 acre lots have to have water/sewer. Larger lots can, with the proper soil conditions have well and septic.

        The name of the game for “growth” in the exurbs – the kind of growth that brings new residents who want to live near I-95 is water/sewer and it’s increasingly a big deal down our way as the EPA/DEQ implement tougher and tougher standards for effluent.

        The 3202 law that beget UDA – Urban Development Areas upset some localities but others, like Stafford, used it as the impetus to put “pods” out into the rural areas – these pods needing water/sewer and in turn – all the land along the water/sewer lines to the UDAs instantly transformed the land on either side into prime residential 1/4 acre subdivision land.

        Areas like that will virtually never become “dense” like Merrifield or Alexandria – there is no urban core .

        but there is something looming on the horizon that will affect all of this: Total Maximum Daily Load – which will result in virtual load allocation caps on many localities forcing advanced (and expensive) treatment – close to tertiary.

  5. My mistake – it’s TIF not TIFF. Sorry. Use of a TIF does shift the recovery of some costs of government to other taxpayers. The argument is, however, that, absent access to government funding, the blighted area could not attract sufficient private investment. Therefore, the use of TIF produces more revenue for all. To protect taxpayers, TIF must be limited to truly blighted areas.

    Fairfax County is very leery of using TIF and did so in Merrifield only for a small subset of the area to be redeveloped, and, as I previously mentioned, subject to backup taxes on the landowners. Fairfax County regularly rejected requests from the Tysons landowners to use TIF. IMO, it did the right thing.

    I don’t think developers believe in Smart Growth or any other theory besides making money – which, IMO, is the proper frame of mind for them. It’s the job of government officials to balance interests, follow the law and make rational decisions. I’ve been hearing more and more developers argue Smart Growth benefits existing communities, even where density is not contemplated. I heard a developer argue that he should be able to build apartments in downtown McLean at a density greater than 3.2 (CapOne’s approved density is c. 3.8) to achieve a walkable community and a sense of place. What the devil does that mean? He further argued that to achieve the density, he needs to remove surface parking and replace it with underground parking, which is so expensive, he needs a high density. The argument is circular. Density belongs near rail transit, but only when accompanied by strong TDM requirements that are enforceable.

  6. re: ” the blighted area ” ergo the proverbial fly in the ointment ….

    is there a good definition of “blighted” or is it in the eyes of the beholder (developer with concurrence from govt)?

    Fredericksburg used a TIF for new development but agreed to what was essentially a 50-50 share of taxes as long as the development produced a certain level of taxes – called a performance clause.

    that – makes the city partner party to the risk….

  7. Andrea Epps Avatar
    Andrea Epps

    Interesting the developer is from S.C., but not surprising at all. I’ll never understand why it is so hard for people to understand that density is not the problem. The devil is in the design, 100% of the time. “design” includes location among many other factors. And the density on Park Avenue is, in part, due to the Amber Reality case that created Euclidean zoning.
    In the last 20 years, I have lived in two VERY different counties. Chesterfield uses TIFFs, but only for specific projects. The problem I have seen is where one property is part of the TIFF district, but cross the street, there is no TIFF. Makes for interesting conversation at the neighborhood block party.New Kent doesn’t even give developers any suggestions for proffered language. I’ve never lived in Fairfax, but am I safe to assume they have evolved enough to understand the importance of choosing redevelopment projects carefully?
    I know a certain lawyer who has decided to turn part of Henrico into its own city… Jim knows him too he’s a fantastic man.

    1. I’m intrigued… who is the lawyer you are talking about?

  8. Andrea Epps Avatar
    Andrea Epps

    Come on now…Henrico, maybe Innsbrook?
    I’ll give you one clue…he is your neighbor (I think)

  9. Hah! Hah! Would his inititals be J.T.?

  10. Andrea Epps Avatar
    Andrea Epps

    Very Good! 🙂 Really, given his nature, I’m surprised this didn’t happen long ago 🙂

  11. so a question – is it more cost efficient to design infrastructure and facilities to support higher densities or retrofit ?

    seems like we build for low density and then try to incrementally densify which means overwhelming the existing facilities and facing very expensive retrofits.

  12. I once did a cost analysis for a very expensive water supply system, which was expected to create demand for more water in the future.

    In that instance the best answer was two water lines, 20 years apart.

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