Developers floated a plan last month to drastically downscale the town center at Vienna MetroWest, but Lynda Smyth, the county supervisor for the area, said she never approved such a change, nor would the Board of Supervisors likely ever do so. Developers say they’re still committed to the full town center, but can’t do it right away.

The downscaled proposal, with single-story buildings fronting onto parking lots. Image from Paraclete Realty.

Developers spoke with county supervisors and residents about the plans at a public meeting on June 18. According to resident Eric Bleeker, the room was packed, and many attendees came because they’d heard about the plan on Greater Greater Washington. Supervisor Smyth said she hadn’t seen the new proposal until it was posted to Greater Greater Washington, and would almost surely not approve it.

According to Tim Alexander of development firm Clark Realty, the downscaled proposal is supposed to be temporary. Clark still wants to build the full town center, but can’t find tenants for the originally proposed office buildings in the current economy. In the mean time, his company doesn’t want to leave that land empty for what could be years.

“The negativity to the plan was immense,” said Bleeker, who lives at MetroWest. “After a good verbal lashing from Supervisor Smyth, the Clark representative spoke of wanting to work with the county on alternative ideas, and threw out pop-up retail.”

What now?

Unfortunately, Clark is between a rock and a hard place. Plan A, the full town center, is impossible in the short term due to the economy. Plan B, the downscaled version, is rightly unpopular. What could work for Plan C?

It would be short-sighted to simply build residential towers in the town center instead of offices. MetroWest would lose its planned mixed-use character. It would be harder to keep retail spaces full over the long term with neither daytime workers in walking distance nor a lot of car traffic passing by.

So temporary single-story buildings may be the only viable near-term option, even if “temporary” means years. But if that’s the case, Clark should strive to build a bona fide main street, rather than a couple of retail pad sites, with half of them fronting onto parking lots.

Even if parking lots are necessary, the main strip of activity should be the pedestrian-oriented walkway down the middle of the site, leading to the Metro station. All stores should front directly onto the main street, and there shouldn’t be any gaps in the street wall where a parking lot comes right up to the front.

If the full town center is years away then a temporary single-story retail town center may be an unfortunate reality, but even if so, Clark can do better.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and an adjunct professor at George Washington University. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado and lives in Trinidad, DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post. Dan blogs to express personal views, and does not take part in GGWash's political endorsement decisions.