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Springfield considers how to support development as study finds need for more housing, amenities

The Franconia-Springfield area is concentrated around I-95 and Old Keene Mill/Franconia Road (via FCEDA)

A decade after Springfield Mall was torn down, reemerging two years later as Springfield Town Center, Fairfax County officials are still trying to figure out how to make the reality of the development match that rebranding.

Progress on transforming downtown Springfield from a commercial hub into the more mixed-use, walkable environment envisioned by county planners has been slow, even nonexistent when it comes to housing, a recently released study found.

In fact, the area hasn’t added a single multifamily residential unit since the Springfield Crossing apartments were built in 2001, according to the Springfield-Franconia Market Study commissioned by the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority (FCEDA).

“That’s insane,” Franconia District Supervisor Rodney Lusk said. “Think about it for a second. Every market has had some sort of residential construction. We have had zero. So, that’s something that we have to obviously think about and figure out where we might allow more residential options…in the areas that make up the Franconia-Springfield market.”

Attributed at least in part to lower rents compared to areas like Tysons or Bethesda, the lack of housing isn’t the only challenge facing downtown Franconia-Springfield, which is concentrated around the I-95 and Old Keene Mill/Franconia Road interchange.

HR&A’s Springfield Market Study found that the area hasn’t added any multifamily housing units since 2001 (via FCEDA)

According to the study, which was conducted by the consultant HR&A, Springfield has 3.2 million square feet of retail development, 2.7 million square feet of office space, 978 multifamily units, 1,843 hotel rooms, and 0.3 million square feet of industrial space.

While the existing shopping centers, including the town center, are performing well overall, retail growth has slowed with just 22,000 square feet added since 2010, and vacancies have jumped to 6.4% during the pandemic.

Covid also drove up vacancies in the office market, where the rate climbed from 13% pre-pandemic to 19% as of early 2022, and sent hotel occupancy rates tumbling from 73.7% in 2019 to 28.4% in 2020 before bouncing back to 51% this year.

Aside from industrial construction, which has stalled since 1988, the study projects room for growth across all markets over the next 10 years, including 1,000 to 1,600 multifamily units, but mixed-use development is necessary to achieve that potential.

The new Springfield Market Study found the area could support more development (via FCEDA)

“There have been significant private investments in Springfield, most notably at Springfield Town Center and the TSA headquarters,” the report said. “However, growth has been focused on site-specific investments, not mixed-use development supportive of County goals or catalytic growth.”

Mixed-use development would require not only more housing, particularly mid-rise buildings less than eight stories tall, but also amenities and public infrastructure to draw residents, workers and the tourists that the study says are needed to offset declining business travel.

Recent movement on a few projects could help the county realize its vision of Franconia-Springfield as a “mixed use, easily accessible, and inter-connected place,” as outlined in the comprehensive plan.

Construction on a new Springfield Community Business Center (CBC) commuter parking garage is expected to finish this coming spring, and Lusk predicts Inova’s expansion of its Springfield campus is “going to be a game changer for our community,” bringing an estimated 1,200 new employees.

The Lego Discovery Center scheduled to open at Springfield Town Center next summer also promises to deliver the kind of entertainment needed to attract tourists and diversify the area’s retail offerings, which are dominated by clothing and merchandise stores, according to HR&A’s report.

A proposed hotel at the town center will be heard by the Fairfax County Planning Commission tonight, just two weeks after it recommended approval of a mid-rise residential building there.

New housing could also be coming to the Springfield CBC, where developers Schupp Companies and Vista Residential hope to add 560 units. The Board of Supervisors will decide whether to pursue that and other nominations for  site-specific plan amendments next Tuesday (Dec. 6), when the town center mid-rise is scheduled for a public hearing.

“There’s a number of things that are happening now in the Springfield market, and we want to continue to facilitate and encourage that development,” Lusk said.

A national marketing director for the FCEDA before being elected in 2019, Lusk says he asked the Board of Supervisors to authorize the market study last year to help start a conversation with the community about the future of development in the area.

After being first unveiled at a Mount Vernon Chamber of Commerce breakfast on Oct. 13, the study results were presented to the Springfield Civic Association and the Crestwood and Monticello Woods homeowners’ associations on Nov. 15, according to Lusk.

A comprehensive plan amendment will likely be needed to reflect the market study’s findings and how economic conditions have changed since the current language was adopted based on a Springfield Connectivity Study conducted in 2007-2008.

The study also recommends that the county establish an “anchor institution” to promote and advocate for Springfield, while filling gaps between existing entities like the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce and the county’s community revitalization section.

The governance organization could take different forms, such as a business improvement district or nonprofit partnership, but it will likely require some public investment that the Board of Supervisors will need to approve, similar to the process that formed the Tysons Community Alliance this fall.

“We’re going to have to have an informal group of probably county staff members [and] myself really go through this recommendation and the other recommendations and try to come to some agreement on how to proceed,” Lusk said.

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