County revises vision for mixed-use Pan Am shopping center after community input

Pan Am Shopping Center (file photo)

(Updated at 7 p.m.) The Fairfax County Planning Commission gave its full support last week to a proposal to allow housing at Merrifield’s Pan Am Shopping Center, a key step toward transforming the strip mall into a mixed-use neighborhood.

The commission voted unanimously on July 27 to recommend that the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors amend the county’s comprehensive plan for the approximately 25-acre property southeast of Route 29 and Nutley Street, opening the door for up to 585 multifamily residential units and additional retail space.

Before the vote, county staff shared that they had revised the proposed amendment in response to concerns raised by community members, including at a nearly two-hour public hearing on June 28 that was continued to July 27.

“One of the key outcomes of this process is the recognition that this retail center is a vital and valued community asset that is integral to the lives not just of the adjoining residents, but those of the area and region as well,” Providence District Planning Commissioner Phil Niedzielski-Eichner said. “…In my view, the draft plan language before us this evening effectively represents or reflects the community input we received.”

Under the draft amendment, the shopping center could be redeveloped with up to 609,000 square feet of multifamily residential uses, at least 140,000 square feet of existing retail, and 47,000 square feet of new retail on the ground floor of the residential buildings and standalone commercial buildings.

Based on a rezoning application already filed by property owner Federal Realty, the square footage amounts were mentioned in a staff report released on June 7, but they weren’t initially included in the plan amendment itself, which previously only specified 585 units and a total of 187,000 square feet of retail as the parameters for development.

The amendment also now states that the number of dwelling units includes affordable and workforce units. Residential buildings will be limited to 80 feet in height along Nutley Street and 70 feet along the eastern property line.

Pan Am Shopping Center owner Federal Realty has proposed adding residential buildings to the east and a new standalone retail building on the property’s northwest corner (via Fairfax County)

Other changes stress the importance of gateway architecture and wayfinding signage as well as safety and connectivity for vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists.

To integrate the existing and new uses, the development must feature publicly accessible urban parks, including at least one “consolidated, common green that can…accommodate a broad spectrum of active recreation and leisure activities,” per the staff report modification.

The amendment recommends maintaining and enhancing an existing link to the Providence Hall Apartments, adding an off-road bicycle and pedestrian facility on the east side of Nutley Street, and evaluating the Nutley and Route 50 intersection, along with Nutley and Route 29.

Traffic congestion and the site’s accessibility to the surrounding community emerged as top concerns at the public hearings. The proposed redevelopment will generate 3,819 fewer vehicle trips per day than what’s currently allowed in the comprehensive plan, but it will represent a roughly 1,200-trip increase compared to what the shopping center sees right now, according to the Fairfax County Department of Transportation.

While the details won’t be addressed in the plan amendment, county staff have been working with the developer on an operational analysis of all major intersections around the property, including where Nutley meets routs 29 and 50, FCDOT senior transportation planner Thomas Burke said.

“I don’t know all the details, but I do know that they are focusing on the intersection of 29 and Nutley,” he told the planning commission. “They’re trying to get rid of that split phasing on the south approach. They’re trying to make that intersection work a lot better. It’s going to be a linchpin in making traffic flow better.”

Burke said the county wasn’t “overly concerned” about the Nutley and I-66 interchange to the north in connection to this project, since it was “studied to death” by the Virginia Department of Transportation for its I-66 Express Lanes extension.

However, a Fairfax resident who spoke at last week’s hearing argued that it’s impossible for pedestrians and bicyclists to safely cross the revamped interchange, which replaced traffic lights with a pair of roundabouts.

“I won’t even bike that bridge, because you have cars coming off the highway, going into those roundabouts with no stop,” the resident said. “I don’t trust those cars. 99% of them might be fine, but [if] that 1% hits my kid, it’s not worth it. People cannot get from the other side of the highway to Pan Am, because there is no safe way.”

The I-66 project includes a new shared-use trail. The initial segments, including a passage under Nutley, opened in May. Also now open is a section on the south side of I-66 that goes under the ramp from northbound Nutley to I-66 East, providing access to a sidewalk over the highway, according to VDOT.

“Remaining sections are anticipated to open later this year,” a VDOT spokesperson said. “When complete, cyclists and pedestrians will be able to cross the interchange without at-grade crossings by using a series of box culverts to travel under the ramps…In addition, there are sidewalks and crosswalks on the east side of the Nutley Street bridge.”

(Correction: This story initially said the trail at Nutley and I-66 would require crossing a ramp. VDOT says the crossings will all be under the ramps.)

McGuireWoods land use attorney Greg Riegle, who has been representing Federal Realty, said the developer supports the plan amendment revisions.

“You have our commitment that we will continue robust outreach and continue to work to resolve issues in the remaining steps of the process,” he said.

The amendment is scheduled for a Board of Supervisors public hearing at 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 12. Federal Realty’s proposed development plan will then go to the planning commission on Oct. 18.