Outside of Tysons Corner, Vienna MetroWest is Fairfax County’s greatest experiment yet in transit-oriented development. But now it appears developers have scaled back, and may build car-oriented retail instead.

Original plan. Image from Clark Realty.

MetroWest was initially approved in 2006 after years of debate as a dense, walkable town center adjacent to Vienna Metro station. It was Fairfax County’s first big smart growth win.

With construction of the residential sections underway, the town center seemed close to finally, finally happening. But now that it’s time to actually start leasing spaces, the town center development plan looks a lot different.

Instead of dense, walkable midrises, the are single-story retail buildings surrounded by surface parking lots. Instead of an urban town center, it’s a glorified strip mall.

Current plan. Image from Paraclete Realty.

What happened? One can speculate. A recession hit, competing developments at nearby Dunn Loring Metro opened first, and the market changed.

Developers do often build single-story retail as a “temporary” placeholder until they’re ready for more intense uses. That was the idea behind the Kentlands town center in Gaithersburg, which is now redeveloping parcel by parcel. But “temporary” in this case can mean 20 years.

For people who bought homes at MetroWest based on the promise of a strong town center nearby, the potential of something better years in the future is little consolation.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.