Proposed Pan Am redevelopment in Merrifield drops townhouses, going all in on apartments

A crowd watches Fairfax County’s presentation on a proposal to redevelop the Pan Am Shopping Center (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

The plan to redevelop Merrifield’s Pan Am Shopping Center has evolved since property owner Federal Realty submitted an initial proposal to Fairfax County last spring.

Perhaps the biggest change is the removal of up to 34 four-story townhomes previously shown on the southwest corner of the 25-acre strip mall at 3089 Nutley Street SW. The attached houses had accompanied three apartment buildings totaling 516 units.

After talking with county staff, Federal Realty agreed to eliminate the townhouses in favor of providing more park space, Director of Development Mark Hendrickson said at a community meeting on the project in the former Pet Valu store on Thursday (March 30).

In an illustrative plan presented at the meeting, the park space appeared as a green patch with trees and a path connecting the shopping center’s parking lot to the neighboring Providence Hall Apartments.

That corner will also be occupied by one of the three multifamily buildings, which will collectively have 585 units — all rental apartments.

“Townhomes are very land-consumptive,” county planner Aaron Klibaner said. “…It made more sense to do a smaller apartment building on that corner.”

Conversations between the county and Federal Realty have also reduced the residential buildings from seven to five stories, making them “more compatible” with Providence Hall, Klibaner said. They could still be up to 90 feet tall, but will “taper down” in height closer to the existing apartments.

Property owner Federal Realty’s current plan replaces part of the parking lot and a retail building with apartment buildings (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

The plan for rental units came as a surprise to Troy and Jackie Sponaugle, who have lived less than a mile away on Route 29 for almost 42 years. The couple said they had been told before that the units would be condominiums, though Hendrickson said condos were never considered for this project.

“Rental units are not as stable as owner units. We’re concerned that might impact the stability of the neighborhood,” Troy said.

Housing would support retail, developer says

The county’s Department of Planning and Development organized last week’s meeting to get feedback on whether its comprehensive plan should be amended to allow mixed-use development on the currently all-retail site.

Authorized by the Board of Supervisors in December 2021, the plan amendment study represents “the very, very beginning of the development process,” county staff stressed.

However, the question-and-answer portion of the meeting suggested some residents are already anxious about what the redevelopment could mean for Pan Am and the overall community.

At the forefront of many minds was the future of the current retailers, especially Michaels and Micro Center. One resident’s impassioned plea for the necessity of retaining the computer store drew claps from her fellow attendees, who easily exceeded 50 people.

While Federal Realty has confirmed that Safeway will stay as the main anchor, it’s still “trying to figure out” where the other retailers will go, Hendrickson said. The illustrative plan shows an expanded retail space.

Micro Center and Michaels will need to be relocated if the Pan Am Shopping Center is redeveloped (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Noting that the retail market has been moving away from big box stores, Hendrickson explained that the housing and other amenities, like parks and pedestrian paths, would support the shopping center’s businesses by creating a sense of community.

While there is “plenty of community” in the area, the developer heard during Zoom calls with local homeowners’ associations that there “was nowhere in Pan Am” that makes residents want to stay for extended periods of time.

“The focus has been on connectivity. This is not trying to be Mosaic [District],” he said, calling Fairfax Corner a closer analogue to Federal Realty’s vision.

Community fears public infrastructure insufficient

Connectivity is also a priority for Meg Gisonda, who doesn’t drive, though her husband does. She welcomes the prospect of Pan Am’s large, “sad” parking lot getting partially replaced by housing — with the hope that Federal Realty goes beyond the county’s 8% requirement for workforce units.

However, she’s not convinced the on-site paths and Nutley Street bicycle lanes that the developer has offered to provide will address the actual challenges faced by pedestrians, bicyclists and anyone else traveling outside a car.

For instance, Fairfax Connector has a bus stop right in front of Gisonda’s house on Route 29, but buses only come once an hour, and there isn’t a direct route to destinations like the Mosaic District. The timing also isn’t synced with Metro’s trains, so she typically has to walk back home from the Vienna station.

“So much of this is reliant on the county because it’s public infrastructure,” Gisonda said. “There’s not terribly much that this development company can really do about things that the community really needs, like more crosswalks or more buses with varied routes that come quickly, that go places where people need to go.”

With new housing approved at MetroWest near the Vienna Metro station and increased density proposed on nearby Swanee Lane, many community members raised concerns about the influx of new residents taxing the area’s roads and schools.

One resident observed that it already takes three signal cycles for drivers to get through the Nutley Street and Route 29 intersection, while another opined that the roundabout configuration at I-66 made an “already horrible” situation “worse.”

In addition to foreseeing traffic problems at Nutley/Route 29, Troy Sponaugle says Fairhill Elementary School, which his granddaughter attends, doesn’t have room for another 100 students.

“The land owner’s only concerned about Pan Am, but we have to be concerned about more than that, or else the quality of life in our area here will go down,” Troy said.

A county staff report on the proposed plan amendment is expected to be finalized in the month or two, according to Klibaner. A public hearing before the Fairfax County Planning Commission will likely come 30 days after the report’s release.

Plan via Dalia Palchik/Twitter

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