Dead Center

McLean’s residents have been calling for a new-and-improved shopping and dining district for more than a decade. So why is its revitalization stuck in neutral?

For years, McLean residents Steve and Anne Wydler and their two daughters have made a habit of walking the mile from their home near Lewinsville Park to get coffee and gelato at the StarNut Gourmet on Laughlin Avenue. It’s not an easy hike along Davidson Road and Chain Bridge Road, but they’re determined not to rely on their car for every errand and outing.

“People look at us like, ‘There’s that crazy family walking into town again,’ ” Anne says. “The roads aren’t pedestrian friendly.”

Like many of their neighbors, the Wydlers feel that changes to the local landscape are overdue. Steve, a real estate agent, would like to see a more pedestrian-friendly downtown district with its own distinct character. “When McLean families start talking about the town, the first thing they talk about is when [redevelopment] will happen,” he says. “My sense is that the vast majority of McLean would like better shopping, pedestrian areas and restaurants.”

Not that there haven’t been attempts to make that happen. For 16 years, county planners have been pushing to overhaul the archipelago of dated strip malls and parking lots that form the “downtown” of this affluent corner of Fairfax County, where the median household income is $178,000 and the median home value is $895,500, according to U.S. Census data. And they’ve had support from the McLean Planning Committee, an advisory panel representing local citizens and homeowners associations, the Greater McLean Chamber of Commerce and the McLean Commercial Landowners Association. Though various proposals have been put forth, none to date has gained enough traction to bring in the bulldozers and cranes.  

McLean wasn’t always a textbook case of suburban sprawl. In the early 1900s, the area was mostly  home to dairy, wheat and vegetable farms. City-dwellers were infrequent visitors, unless they were tourists heading to nearby Great Falls to see where the river drops a dramatic 80 feet in the span of a mile. It was John Roll McLean, publisher and owner of The Washington Post from 1905 until his death in 1916, who ultimately put his town on the map by tapping into an existing rail line owned by the Great Falls and Old Dominion Railway (later known as the Washington and Old Dominion Railway). McLean built a whistle stop on Old Dominion Drive, just west of the intersection with Chain Bridge Road and called it “Ingleside.” But it wasn’t long before the train station (and then the town) assumed McLean’s name.

During that time, the area saw a peppering of landmark buildings, including Storm’s General Store and Post Office (built in 1910 and razed in the ’60s) and the McLean Baptist Church on Emerson Avenue (built in 1925), which still stands today. With the train tracks as a main artery, residences began to pop up near the station along Elm Street and Poplar Street (now Beverly Road) and Ingleside Avenue.

“You saw the communal life of the town come together around the railroad,” says Paul Kohlenberger, president of the McLean Historical Society.

 

After the railroad was removed in 1934 (following years of sustained operational losses), cars shaped the area’s development patterns. So plentiful were the gas stations that sprouted up along Chain Bridge Road that locals began to deride the route as “Gasoline Alley,” Kohlenberger says. Workers streamed into the area during and after World War II, and housing subdivisions proliferated.

“We started as a farm community and we became a suburban bedroom town,” says Sally Horn, president of the McLean Citizens Association (MCA), a group that has served as an unofficial town council for unincorporated McLean since 1914.

In the early 1950s, O.V. Carper built Carper’s Shopping Center (now Old Dominion Shopping Center) on Old Dominion Drive, and the Smoot family built the Salona Village Shopping Center on Chain Bridge Road.

As other clusters of community-serving retail followed, residents were quick to embrace the convenience of nearby stores. But they vehemently opposed apartment buildings. In 1955, the MCA voted to “disapprove any area zoned for multifamily dwellings,” citing concerns over traffic, schools, landscaping and privacy.

Seven years later, an epic battle over the Merrywood redevelopment—located near the intersection of Route 123 and the George Washington Parkway—ended when the MCA squashed a proposal by developer Sheldon Magazine to build a 10-story apartment building on property that had been owned by Jacqueline Kennedy’s stepfather, Hugh D. Auchincloss.

These and similar opposition efforts—combined with the 1959 extension of the George Washington Parkway, the 1961 arrival of the CIA in Langley and the 1964 completion of the I-495 Beltway—gave rise to Tysons Corner. “[Local residents] were against having any apartments here, and Tysons Corner ended up being where the big office buildings and apartments were built,” says Robert Ames “Bob” Alden, an editor at The Washington Post from 1952 to 2000, who has lived in McLean for 61 years. As Tysons boomed, sleepy McLean fell off the radar…for a time.

That is, Until 1998, when Fairfax County introduced a comprehensive redevelopment plan for a 19,400-acre parcel that it defined as the “McLean Planning District,” a territory that included Tysons Corner, West Falls Church and McLean.

A central component of the plan called for the creation of two villages in an area that county officials referred to as the Central Business Center (CBC), a node of about 230 acres radiating out from the intersection of Chain Bridge Road and Old Dominion Drive. The North Village—proposed to take shape around the fork intersection of Chain Bridge Road and Old Chain Bridge Road—would have “a mixed-use feel” with pedestrian walkways and an open plaza for outdoor entertainment, says Meghan Van Dam, chief of the policy and plan development branch of Fairfax County’s Department of Planning and Zoning.

The South Village would form a block radius around the intersection of Chain Bridge Road and Laughlin Avenue, building upon existing retail to form a “Main Street” destination for shopping and dining.

 

There was just one hitch. For the county plan to work, the private citizens and commercial investors who owned much of the 230 acres on the drawing board would have to either sell their properties or foot the bill for a portion of the redevelopment.

Perceiving a potential opportunity, developer Dan Montgomery, a McLean resident and president of Bethesda, Md.-based Clark Construction, began inquiring about the availability of key  properties and buying them when the landowners were ready to sell. Within a few years, his family came to own a significant portion of the territory outlined in the county’s plan.

“In 2002, the owners of Chain Bridge Corner [which today includes Giant Food and Greenberry’s Coffee] did decide to sell,” says Dan Montgomery’s son Bob. “[My father] was able to get a group of investors together. In 2007, the owners of Old Dominion Shopping Center [whose tenants include Chesapeake Bagel Bakery and the antiques dealer Thieves Market] decided to sell, and he was able to purchase that as well.”

The younger Montgomery now serves as principal of McLean Properties, a property and asset management company founded in 2008 to manage these and other commercial holdings.

To Spark Public dialogue around the proposed Main Street project, the McLean Planning Committee in 2008 began soliciting public input through community surveys and meetings. Although the reactions were generally favorable, there were sticking points. Some local business owners balked at the higher rents they knew they would inevitably have to pay to occupy new buildings. At the same time, individual citizens and community groups had disparate visions of what they wanted the new downtown to look like, with varying opinions on matters such as density and building height restrictions.

“There were many differing ideas on the redevelopment and no clear consensus,” Bob Montgomery says, “so the community groups felt it would be better to have McLean Properties put together our vision for downtown and take it through the approval process.”

Six years have since passed and that has yet to happen. Montgomery says that with so many stakeholders weighing in, the planning stage will take time. “[The community] asked us to pursue not just a comprehensive plan amendment…but also a concurrent rezoning, which requires quite a bit more detail and therefore time to develop,” he says.

Some community leaders, meanwhile, are frustrated by what they perceive as an inertia that started with the 2008 recession. “There was a lot of planning, including community involvement, and then there has been radio silence,” says Sally Horn of the MCA. “When we look at McLean going forward, it’s not 100 percent clear what it will look like.”

Not everyone is unhappy with the status quo. “I get the sense that some people want to live on their plot of land, and they like to be able to drive to the McLean Family Restaurant, park, walk 15 feet, and go inside,” Kohlenberger says. “There has been some resistance to wholesale changes.”

But there does seem to be consensus on one front: Without the Montgomery family, there will be no transformation. Even with other property owners in the mix (the Smoot family, for example, still owns the Salona Village Shopping Center, as well as the Langley Shopping Center on Chain Bridge Road), the Montgomerys have the keys, because their holdings are at the epicenter of the redevelopment area.

 

“I believe the Montgomery family to be integral to any successful redevelopment of downtown McLean and trust their business acumen as to the timing and design of such an undertaking,” says Rich Amons, an active community member and 29-year resident of the Langley Farms neighborhood.

Although broad plans for a makeover have yet to make it past the drawing board, McLean’s downtown has seen some incremental improvements. The most notable is actually something that is disappearing—the power lines. Once complete, the $3.5 million project, which has been  decades in the making, will place all of the utility lines underground along certain stretches of Old Dominion Drive and Chain Bridge Road.

Rob Jackson, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations and a McLean resident since 1987, points out that although the primary motivation was to alleviate an eyesore, burying the lines will have the added benefit of creating more unencumbered space for future sidewalks and trees.

“People stayed on the undergrounding utility,” Jackson says. “It took a long time and hard work to get easements, but people stuck to it and it’s an improvement.” He hopes citizens will now be equally persistent in actuating the next steps toward redevelopment.

Other recent upgrades include the creation of a landscaped “gateway” median on Old Dominion Drive near Holmes Place, as well as a new crosswalk at the intersection of Chain Bridge Road and Old Dominion Drive at Elm Street. These joint efforts, advocated by the McLean Planning Committee and Fairfax County Supervisor John Foust, were made possible with a grant from the Virginia Department of Transportation.

So what’s next? Foust, who represents the Dranesville district (which includes McLean), would like to see more pedestrian- and bike-friendly improvements. (He has already worked with cycling advocates to install 80 bicycle route signs around town, and with local businesses to install bike racks in front of retail buildings.)

“The CBC has been a convenient commercial center for the bedroom community,” Foust says. “In most cases, you can park in front of the store you want to shop at. What it’s lacking is the ability to easily walk between those stores.”

Elizabeth Morton, president of the McLean Revitalization Corp., a consortium of civic and business leaders formed in 1998 to promote the county’s comprehensive plan, agrees. “McLean likes to think of itself as a village, but when you look around, it does not look like a village,” she says. “A lot of what you see now is parking lots.”

Still, some local small-business owners are finding the current state of limbo disconcerting. Many continue to worry that the higher rents associated with new construction may eventually force them to move. At the same time, they say the present uncertainty is keeping other small businesses from relocating to or expanding in McLean, for fear that once they are established, their buildings could be torn down to make way for redevelopment.

 

“The lack of original and innovative small businesses can be tied directly to the lack of commercially viable space in McLean,” says Karen Sherwood, who owns Nourish Market, a health food market and deli on Old Dominion Drive. “That is tied directly to the ongoing revitalization projects, which have stalled.”

Is There a happy medium between the intense, urban-style density of Tysons Corner and the intimate “village” ideal that so many McLean residents hold dear? Proponents of the county’s comprehensive plan believe so.

“There’s no major large development envisioned on the scale of Tysons…,” says Van Dam of the county’s planning department, “but [the plan] will connect the two villages around Chain Bridge in a Main Street concept. The plan tapers down on the edges so you have nice, easy transition to the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Supervisor Foust is quick to note, however, that the original plan metrics may need to be updated—particularly in light of Metro’s soon-to-open Silver Line and the continuing development of Tysons Corner. He says that community members who want change may need to readjust their attitudes about density to reflect modern-day economic realities.

“Redevelopment would require knocking buildings down and taking a couple of years to get new buildings constructed,” Foust says. “That’s hard [for a developer] to justify economically. In the areas where we want to focus, we will have to revisit the comprehensive plan to determine what densities are needed to create an incentive for redevelopment by the landowner.”

For current property owners in the CBC, redevelopment means incurring the expense of tearing down and rebuilding properties, foregoing tenant income in the interim, and ultimately gambling on the promise of bigger rents down the road. If a property is already income-producing, the landowner doesn’t have much incentive to incur the added costs and risk.

Which may explain why McLean Properties has yet to unveil any formal plan proposals for downtown McLean, much less apply for permits.

“We haven’t yet figured out our specific plans for redevelopment or what densities would be necessary,” says Montgomery, who for now is preaching patience. “We’re working to understand what it takes to create a great place that is lively and beneficial to local residents. The hope is that this redevelopment will create a central place that [people] will be excited about.”

That day can’t come a moment too soon for families like the Wydlers, who appreciate the area’s current amenities, but want more.

“J. Gilbert’s is bursting at the seams,” Anne Wydler says of the popular steakhouse on Old Dominion Drive. “People are starved for somewhere to go. We have two coffee shops, but there is almost never a table because there’s so much demand.”

Anne Polk, a five-year resident of the Timberly South neighborhood, would love to see more bistro-style eateries, along with a downtown farmers market. “There’s a lot of potential,” she says, “to make it a better place to bring your family to walk around and have dinner.”

Langley Farms resident Rich Amons, despite his sympathy for the developer’s point of view, is blunt in his assessment of the current offerings. “When you are cheering on the opening of a Chipotle as a culinary option,” he says, “it’s not good.”

Arlington resident Les Shaver has been covering the real estate industry for more than a decade.

Categories: Neighborhoods
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