Photo by the author.

Rather than taking maximum advantage of an opportunity to improve an area that is in dire need of better design, the City of Falls Church settled on a cookie-cutter, big box store when planning for BJ’s.

The BJ’s Wholesale Club opened last October 9 near Seven Corners to much fanfare. Most of the press around the opening was very positive, though it was built with little regard for future urban design or long-term planning in the area.

The property owner, JBG Properties, and the City of Falls Church announced the original plan two years earlier in October 2008.  In that deal, the city agreed to provide $250,000 in annual tax relief to the property owners (totaling approximately $3 million over 12 years). The relief was intended to help offset some of the costs of site preparation, including retaining walls and infill.

At least one Falls Church resident perceived the deal as providing an unfair advantage to a business that doesn’t really need it in comparison to some of the small businesses in the area.

The site is approximately 8.5 acres, and the store is reportedly 87,000 square feet, or about 24% of the site area (for comparison, the wildly popular, mixed-use Clarendon Common in Clarendon sits on 10 acres).  It is exactly 1 mile from the East Falls Church Metro and is a typical big box retailer, with a large parking lot along the street and a deep setback.

Though tastefully landscaped, the site was formerly forested, and as many as 100 mature trees were sacrificed for the store’s construction.  As expected, the parking lot was full the first weekend it opened.  On the numerous occasions I’ve passed by there since, I have never seen it more than about 2/3 full and often more than half empty.

Photo by the author.

As the resident above points out, there is little to no chance Falls Church would have allowed this BJ’s near the center of the city.  It is in the far southeast corner of the city (map), bordering both Fairfax and Arlington Counties, and away from the “village” area of Falls Church.

One could argue that the BJ’s fits into this car-centric area around Seven Corners, which is unlike the center of Falls Church, with its mom-and-pop stores.  However, the design could have been somewhat better with minor adjustments and considerably better with significant changes.

One step toward transforming the site to be more pedestrian-friendly could have been siting the building next to the street with a wide, inviting sidewalk and the parking in the rear. Better yet, a few small storefronts could have been integrated along the street as well, lessening the anchor store’s isolation and vastly improving the pedestrian experience. Within 1/2 mile of this site are literally hundreds of housing units, primarily multi-family, so a significant density of potential pedestrians exists.

Even more innovative, though, would have been to develop the site completely differently, perhaps with a variety of uses and working on intelligent ways to take advantage of the Metro station just 1 mile away and the density of nearby housing.  It could have been the start of a larger transformation for the entire area.

This picture shows the small group of stores just to the west of BJs.  When this strip is redeveloped, the setback could be moved closer to the street, improving the pedestrian experience and continuing what could have been a mild transformation had the BJs site been more well designed.

To the east of BJ’s is this Jiffy Lube, a fine establishment no doubt, but one that for the time being will detract from improving the streetscape.  I am unaware of any current or imminent development efforts in the immediate vicinity of the BJ’s.

Presumably Falls Church, with its relatively progressive population and policies, is a strong candidate for innovative suburban land use. In fact, the city has been working with Arlington County on a more progressive, long-term plan for the East Falls Church Metro station area.

In the end, timing likely affected some of the decisions surrounding this property. Because of the recession, Falls Church was desperate for sales tax revenue. If this deal had taken place before the downturn, the city may have had the means to negotiate for a better land use in return for less revenue.

It wouldn’t be surprising if, at the end of the 12-year tax break period, the owners either negotiate an extension or simply move to another location. The building itself is single use and couldn’t be easily re-purposed, as evidenced by the long-empty Big Lots less than 1000 feet away in the Eden Center.

In retrospect, a few design changes could have been implemented that would have served as a small step towards transforming this area. Unfortunately, that effort was not made and we’re left with another disposable big box.

Unless Falls Church and Fairfax County decide to work together to develop a vision for Seven Corners, it will remain a poorly designed, unsafe, and unattractive part of the Washington region.

Steve Offutt has been working at the confluence of business and environment for almost 20 years, with experience in climate change solutions, green building, business-government partnerships, transportation demand management, and more. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children and is a cyclist, pedestrian, transit rider and driver.