The proposed redevelopment (or reinvention) of Tysons Corner, the Silver Line, and Fairfax County’s accompanying rezoning have gotten a lot of attention. But just to the south of that currently nightmarish crossroads is the county’s first stab at transforming an office park and auto-dependent suburb into human-scale mixed use and transit oriented development. The revitalization of Merrifield is already a decade in the making, and if it’s representative of other such large scale reinventions, folks waiting for Tysons to look like Ballston may want to get a Snickers bar.

The new development closely follows the original 2000 Suburban Center Study. The county formally adopted elements of that study in 2003. Merrifield has an existing heavy rail transit station, but saw little to no community opposition, as the existing buildings are warehouses and auto-body shops.

It still takes quite a bit of imagination to see the long term vision from walking around the area. Today, it is just a sliver of what could be, abruptly terminated and transitioned to what was before. It’s cool to look at, but not really fun to walk around. Despite its superior location at a crossroads of the Beltway, Lee Hwy, Route 50, I-66, and Gallows Road, and essentially at the geographical center of population for Fairfax County), the Merrifield revitalization hasn’t yet created the spark to ignite development.

Community opposition squashed plans for a privately-funded, 8,000-seat minor league ballpark and adjacent mid-rise residential on the Dunn Loring Metro parking lot in 2000. Since then, nothing has catalyzed a gold rush or moved the area into the collective consciousness. Ironically, even the opposition hasn’t put the area on the map. There were no protests, no fun color drawings in the newspaper like Tysons, and no maps of potential transit lines for people to ponder.

Fairfax County is now trying to get things moving by allowing developers to borrow money against future real estate taxes. They’re trying to start with the proposed “Mosaic District” project, formerly Merrifield Town Center. The design of the project itself seems to incorporate all the right elements of density, mixed uses, and streetscapes, but the TIF funding depends on real estate values contining to rise. Now, they are going down. Way down.

Rather than a de facto Ponzi scheme as a catalyst, Fairfax County should pick up where it left off in 2000 with its study for light rail from Tysons to Merrifield and beyond. A Gallows Road Light Rail starter line to Tysons and Fairfax Hospital would take advantage of several factors:

  1. Federal Infrastructure Stimulus Dollars could be used instead of relying on risky real estate values.
  2. It would connect planned development (like Mosaic) with the existing underused metro station, thus maximizing investment dollars spent now and in the past.
  3. There’s already a right-of-way been set aside all along Gallows for future expansion to 3 lanes in each direction. This of course should be used for mass transit. No more ROW would need to be purchased.
  4. It would connect the largest business district in Northern Virginia (Tysons) with the 4th largest.
  5. The line would be relatively short, but serve quite a bit of development, again maximizing dollars spent to length of track laid.
  6. It would terminate at the Virginia Power ROW. In the future, the line could be extended to Burke VRE and to Annandale/Van Dorn Metro (with a new connection to VRE).

For another jump start, Fairfax could help fund a George Mason University Medical School across the street from the Fairfax hospital mega-complex on the existing under-used Mobil headquarters property. Take the quasi-city in and around Fairfax Hospital and give it a sense of place (along with a light rail stop). GMU could even incorporate their bioethics and bio defense schools into the project, giving the creative minds drawn to the academic endeavor an urban creative experience to further entice them to plant seeds in the community.

Furthermore, going back to Merrifield’s position as the geographic and population center of Fairfax County, how about selling off the enclosed mall style county headquarters and property to the highest bidder, and building a new urban mixed use County Government Center on the Merrifield /Dunn Loring Metro property? The county could even take the elementary school it owns adjacent to the Metro station and build a bridge to connect the Metro ticketing area to that side of I-66. If we can spend $5 billion to extend metro to Tysons and Reston, let’s maximize our existing infrastructure. Metro is expensive. Let’s get what we can out of it like Arlington has.

Any of these three catalysts would make more sense than using public tax dollars to roll the dice on real estate values rising. At the moment, that’s a very bad bet.