Mixed-use development that will break up McLean ‘superblock’ advances

Fairfax County is on the verge of approving the first residential, mixed-use development to be put forward under its nascent plan to revitalize downtown McLean.

The Astoria project to redevelop three commercial buildings next to the Mars headquarters on Old Dominion Drive got the Fairfax County Planning Commission’s endorsement on Oct. 18, setting it up to be approved by the Board of Supervisors at a public hearing tomorrow (Tuesday).

“It’s going to make a big difference in this stretch of Old Dominion and on Elm Street,” said Dranesville District Commissioner John Ulfelder. “…I think it hits all the marks in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish now in the McLean [Community Business Center] in order to revitalize it and widen it and to bring in more residents, who can then support more local restaurants and other shops and stores.”

Filed in December 2022, the rezoning proposal from property owner JAG Partners LLC would replace the existing office buildings and standalone restaurant — currently occupied by Moby Dick — on the 2-acre site with a seven-story, 130-unit residential building.

The ground floor will be devoted to commercial uses, including 3,109 square feet of retail and 1,692 square feet of office space. Topping out at 92 feet, the building will drop to six stories on the Elm Street side to allay community concerns “about the visual mass of the building,” the developer’s legal agent, Michelle Rosati, said.

According to Rosati, when it conceived the project, JAG Partners focused first on ensuring the pedestrian experience meets the county’s new design guidelines for McLean, which aim to turn the 265-acre downtown into a “neighborhood village” with a small-town feel and streetscapes that encourage non-motorized travel and social interaction.

In addition to a 12-foot-wide pedestrian and bicycle pathway along Old Dominion Drive and an 8-foot-wide sidewalk on Elm Street, the developer will construct an 8-foot-wide pedestrian pathway along its shared property line with Mars, which got the planning commission’s support for a headquarters expansion on Oct. 11.

Proposed open space for the Astoria development includes a linear park and two corner plazas (via Lessard Design/Fairfax County)

Accompanied by urban park amenities like seating and public art, the “Connector Courtyard” will provide a much-needed connection from Old Dominion to Elm Street between Moyer Place and Beverly Road, Rosati said.

“That is a superblock. It’s a very long walk to go all the way around, and this cuts through the middle of the block,” she said, noting that the Elm Street end of the pathway is directly across from a park associated with The Signet condominiums.

The pathway was designed in coordination with Mars, which plans to provide an adjacent 1,850-square-foot, publicly accessible pocket park as part of its expansion project.

“There’ll be a combined nice, wide open space on the Old Dominion side,” Rosati said. “[Mars] also pulled their building back from the common boundary by about 6 feet so it’ll create more breathing room for that pedestrian midblock connection.”

The Astoria will also have plazas on the southwest corner along Old Dominion and the northeast corner along Elm Street, resulting in a total of 14,810 square feet, or 0.34 acres, of park space. Two private courtyards and multiple rooftop terraces will be available to residents.

Though she didn’t take issue with this particular project, Braddock District Commissioner Mary Cortina observed that it continues a trend of developers including spruced-up sidewalks and other right-of-way elements in their urban park space calculations.

“I don’t want the creep of the urban parks just to keep whittling down until it’s just the side of a building,” she said.

County staff said in a report that the amount of urban parkland proposed is “deficient,” but they were satisfied by the quality of the proposed spaces.

“This has always been a battle,” Cathy Lewis, the zoning evaluation branch chief for the Department of Planning and Development, said. “…In Tysons, the quantity that was generated, there’s no way you could achieve that on the site. Sometimes, it was half the site, so you look to try to do it by quality.”

Hunter Mill District Commissioner John Carter suggested reviewing the urban parks standards at a future meeting of the commission’s urban development and placemaking committee, which he chairs.

“It seems like the commercial standards are teeny-tiny and the residential ones are quite large,” he said. “Sometimes they go in the right of way, sometimes they’re going on the roof. I think it’s not working well. I’m not criticizing this project, but I think we should look at this.”