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The D.C. area’s first-ever Winter Lantern Festival is coming to Lerner Town Square at Tysons II (courtesy Kaleido Arts & Entertainment Group)

Thousands of lanterns will take over Lerner Town Square at Tysons II this winter.

Based in New York City, the Winter Lantern Festival will bring over 10,000 Chinese-style lanterns to Tysons for a nearly two-month stay from Dec. 16 through Feb. 12. This will be its first-ever stop in the D.C. area, the festival announced Wednesday (Nov. 30).

“We are thrilled to debut the Winter Lantern Festival, expand to new locations, introduce all visitors to the beauty of these artisan installations, and have the show become part of the DMV’s cultural holiday tradition,” said Haokun Liu, partner of Kaleido Arts & Entertainment Group, which organizes the annual festival.

Founded in 2018 as New York Events & Entertainment, Kaleido Arts assists companies, nonprofits and others with events that promote “global cross-cultural communication,” according to a press release.

The New York City festival has drawn over 150,000 guests annually over its three years of existence. It’s expanding to five different locations this year, but Tysons is the first and only site outside of New York state.

The outdoor venue at 8025 Galleria Drive, which hosted Cirque du Soleil this summer, will be filled with displays made out of painted lanterns to resemble animals, such as polar bears and penguins, as well as figures out of Chinese myths and legends.

All of the lanterns are handmade by over 100 artists, who fit silk cloth over steel wire frames with LED lights using techniques that date back to the Han dynasty, per the festival website. The displays can reach up to 30 feet in height and will span 60 acres.

“Lantern festivals have been a part of Chinese culture and history for thousands of years, honoring our ancestors and celebrating peace, prosperity, and good fortune,” Liu said.

The festival will also feature interactive light swings, see-saws and tunnels, along with live entertainment and food vendors.

Tickets are now on sale for $31.99 for adults and $19.99 for kids 12 and under, including a $2 service fee. For now, customers can get a 30% discount if they use the code EARLYP.

The festival will generally operate on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, but it will be open daily between Dec. 23 and Jan. 1, 2023. Hours will be 5-10 p.m.

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Fairfax County Public Schools

Fairfax County Public Schools could require parental notifications for class materials deemed sexually explicit, but in a deviation from the state, the proposed policy directly addresses concerns about censorship, specifically for LGBTQ-related content.

Introduced at the Fairfax County School Board meeting last night, the policy requires teachers to maintain lists of books, videos, and other instructional materials with “sexually explicit content.” Schools must notify parents at least 30 days before the materials are used and provide alternatives if sought by a parent or student.

“Schools shall defer to parents to determine whether the use of an instructional material with sexually explicit content is appropriate for their child,” the policy states.

As noted by staff, FCPS already has a policy and regulations governing selections of print and electronic materials, including guidance for notifying parents and fulfilling requests for access to the materials or alternatives.

The draft policy generally incorporates a model developed by the Virginia Department of Education, as dictated by Senate Bill 656, which requires school boards to adopt rules specifically for sexually explicit content by Jan. 1, 2023. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Glenn Youngkin on April 6.

However, FCPS has added one clause stating that:

This policy shall not be construed to require or provide for (1) the censoring of books in public elementary and secondary schools, or (2) the designation of instructional material as sexually explicit based solely upon the sexual orientation of the characters contained therein.

The school system told FFXnow it has no comment on the proposal “at this stage,” but the clause seems intended to quell fears that the new requirements could be used to limit access to materials that feature or deal with issues related to LGBTQ people.

Unveiled in early August, the VDOE model policy defines “sexually explicit content” in accordance with the state code:

(i) any description of or (ii) any picture, photograph, drawing, motion picture film, digital image or similar visual representation depicting sexual bestiality, a lewd exhibition of nudity, as nudity is defined in § 18.2-390, sexual excitement, sexual conduct or sadomasochistic abuse, as also defined in § 18.2-390, coprophilia, urophilia, or fetishism.

Virginia Code section 18.2-390 includes “homosexuality” in its definition of sexual conduct, raising concerns that LGBTQ people will be treated as inherently sexual and not suitable for students. The 1,750 public comments submitted on the policy also included praise for it as a step forward for “parental rights.”

The Pride Liberation Project, a student-led advocacy group that started in Fairfax County, was among the critics of the state-proposed policy, but the language added by FCPS has eased its concerns.

“We are grateful to see FCPS clarify that our existence is not sexually explicit,” the group told FFXnow. “Nothing about our existence as Queer students is inherently sexual, but SB 656 threatens to mislabel our community. We hope other school districts follow FCPS’ lead and protect the limited Queer representation in our classrooms from censorship attacks.”

Still, the proposed FCPS policy doesn’t go as far as ones adopted by neighboring districts in warding off potential attacks on LGBTQ materials.

Loudoun County’s school board approved a policy on Wednesday (Nov. 30) that protects materials based on the gender identity of characters, as well as sexual orientation. A policy that went before the Arlington school board last night removes references to section 18.2-390 from its definition of “sexually explicit content.”

FCPS faced questions about material selection last year, when parents complained that there was graphic sexual content in the novel “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison and Maia Kobabe’s memoir “Gender Queer,” which both have LGBTQ protagonists.

Initially pulled from library shelves, the books were restored after review committees determined the claims were unfounded and that their literary merits justified making them accessible to students.

A decade-old fight over Toni Morrison’s classic “Beloved” also became a talking point in Youngkin’s 2021 campaign to become governor. Legislation inspired by that attempted book ban got vetoed in 2016 but served as a precursor for the new state law.

FCPS Pride, an LGBTQ advocacy group for employees, expressed concern that teachers will “self-censor” material out of fear of complaints or harassment.

“No good can come from reducing our curriculum to a few books that make absolutely nobody uncomfortable,” FCPS Pride said in a statement. “Our hope is that, after enacting this policy, FCPS will take legal action on behalf of the right of all students to an education that includes and welcomes them.”

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The Koons Chevy auto dealership at 2000 Chain Bridge Road (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

The developer behind Reston Station and Herndon’s stalled downtown redevelopment has turned its sights to Tysons.

Comstock is seeking to replace the massive Koons Chevy and Chrysler dealerships at 2000 and 2050 Chain Bridge Road near the Route 7 (Leesburg Pike) interchange with a “vibrant, mixed-use, multi-block neighborhood,” according to a new application.

Submitted on Oct. 27 as part of Fairfax County’s Site-Specific Plan Amendment (SSPA) process, which considers possible land use changes to the comprehensive plan, the proposal says the new development would be 85% multifamily residences and about 15% retail. Open space and amenities would also be provided.

“The Nominator respectfully suggests that this infusion of residential mixed use is needed to redress the balance of uses in Tysons, specifically in the office-heavy area in and around the Greensboro Metro Station Transit Station-Mixed Use area,” DLA Piper Senior Land Use Planner Brian J. Clifford said in a statement on Comstock’s behalf.

A concept plan in the application depicts a single multi-level retail building on one block and another with four residential buildings. Heights range from 175 feet to 400 feet, increasing as the buildings get closer to Route 7.

Comstock says the adjacent interchange where Chain Bridge (Route 123) passes over Route 7 needs to be replaced with an at-grade intersection. The developer argues that would allow Boone Blvd to be extended into the Koons property across Route 123, stating that the road can’t be constructed as currently planned by the county.

The Tysons Koons auto dealership property could be redeveloped with retail (in red) and housing, in yellow (via Comstock/Fairfax County)

“The proposed location of the Boone Boulevard/Route 123 crossing is too close to the steep slope of Route 123 as it heads south from this interchange and would create an inherently dangerous situation,” the application says. “There simply isn’t enough distance to add a major intersection at the location depicted in the Comprehensive Plan’s street grid maps.”

The 14-acre property consists of two parcels that have been developed with the Koons dealership since 1975. Fairfax County property records show that Home Depot purchased the Chevy dealership for $30 million on Jan. 8, 2021.

The site was previously owned by Sherwood Tysons LLC, a company belonging to descendants of Tysons namesake William Tyson, according to the Washington Business Journal. The Chrysler portion of the dealership is owned by an affiliate of the Caldow family, which is also related to Tyson.

With the owners’ consent, Comstock intends to consolidate the two parcels. The Tysons Comprehensive Plan designates them as residential mixed-use — where housing should make up 75% or more of the overall development — and transit station mixed-use, which calls for a mix of retail, office, residential and other commercial uses, leaning toward 65% office and 20% residential overall.

The application argues more residential development is needed around the Greensboro Metro station, which is currently 70% office space despite a reported 20% vacancy rate.

“With the office market in a state of flux thanks to the COVID-driven changes in work location and commuting patterns, maintaining an office-heavy focus in this area risks delaying significant investment in redeveloping the existing auto dealership,” Clifford wrote.

Clifford’s statement describes the plan amendment application as a “placeholder” while county officials reevaluate the current and future mix of land uses in Tysons. Comstock declined to comment on the proposal for now, saying it “would be happy to discuss this down the road at a later date.”

The Koons redevelopment is among 75 SSPA nominations that the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors will weigh for possible acceptance on Tuesday (Dec. 6). Other sites up for consideration include Fallfax Center in Idylwood and Reston’s two golf courses.

“It is the Nominator’s intention to proceed to rezoning as quickly as possible and overlap that rezoning with as much of the Evaluation Phase of the SSPA process as is practicable,” Clifford said.

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A man walks by trash bins next to the curb (via Trinity Nguyen on Unsplash)

(Updated at 1:25 p.m.) The service and staffing challenges plaguing trash collectors throughout Fairfax County have prompted one company to call it quits, leaving thousands of residents in limbo with little notice.

Haulin’ Trash LLC has permanently shuttered, informing customers by email Wednesday (Nov. 30) that it will cease operations effective yesterday.

“We have faced many challenges over the past several weeks that we simply cannot overcome. This decision has not only affected our customers but it has affected dozens of employees and their families,” owner Bobby Frazier said in the message, apologizing for the resulting inconvenience.

Frazier said that the “keys to the business” will transferred to a court-appointed trustee “over the next couple of weeks,” who will be in charge of giving out credits or refunds.

Started in 2017, the Leesburg-based company served around 3,000 customers in the county, including homeowners’ associations and 1,800 single-household customers, the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES) says.

The county has over a dozen private, licensed haulers that serve about 90% of residents and businesses. The rest get waste collection services from the county government.

DPWES says its Solid Waste Management Program contacted Haulin’ Trash on Tuesday (Nov. 29) after receiving “a surge in resident complaints about missed collections.” The company told staff that it was “experiencing operational and financial difficulties,” but said it was looking at options to address the reported concerns, according to the county.

A day later, though, Haulin’ Trash notified the county that it had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and would close on Dec. 1. An email sent to customers on Nov. 30 said plans to “catch up” on missed collections proved impossible because it had only four trucks — half its fleet – available.

Shared with FFXnow today, the email has a timestamp of 4:29 p.m. The announcement that Haulin’ was permanently closing went out at 9:39 p.m. that same day. The company didn’t return a request for comment.

While sudden, the closure doesn’t appear to be a total surprise to Haulin’ customers. One told FFXnow that the company’s service “had degraded to almost nothing this month,” while an Oakton resident said it missed three consecutive pickups in their neighborhood in November.

“The delayed/missed pickups have caused trash/recycle bin(s) and yard waste bag(s) sit on the curbside/street for weeks,” the resident wrote in an anonymous tip. “As a result, the neighbor looks disorganized with unpleasant smell, trashes littering on street, in storm drainage, on lawn(s).” Read More

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Fairfax County police are investigating a robbery scheme where fake gold jewelry is offered for cash (via FCPD)

The Fairfax County Police Department is investigating a “cash for gold robbery scheme” involving three Maryland residents who forced a driver on the Capital Beltway (I-495) to give them money for jewelry that was likely fake.

The driver encountered the three individuals while driving home on Oct. 29 near the exit to Bethesda, where he saw them standing on the side of I-495, police said in a news release published today.

The victim stopped to provide aid. A woman said the stranded group needed money to continue their travels. She showed the victim a watch and gold jewelry. She requested cash in exchange for the items. The woman convinced the victim to drive to an ATM. Two men in a black SUV followed the victim and woman. The victim began driving and quickly realized this was likely a scam. The victim stopped in a parking lot and exited his car. One of the men from the other vehicle exited their car and told the victim to sit in the driver’s seat while he drove the victim to obtain money.

The man was driven to four locations around the Tysons area, where the trio forced the man “through intimidation” to withdraw money until his bank accounts were empty, according to the police.

Once the trio left him, the man called 911.

The FCPD says the perpetrators of the scam were identified as 39-year-old Magdalena Mazil, 36-year-old Hagi Voinescu, and 23-year-old Romeo Voinescu — all Baltimore residents — after an officer came across them in a gray Chevrolet Tahoe that “appeared to be disabled” on the Dulles Toll Road near Route 7 in Tysons on Nov. 3.

The officer searched the vehicle and found “large amounts of fake gold jewelry,” police said.

Mazil and Hagi Voinescu were arrested by Baltimore City detectives on Nov. 22, but Romeo Voinescu remains “outstanding,” according to police.

All three individuals are facing charges of abduction and four counts of robbery. The FCPD also obtained warrants for Hagi Voinescu for preventing a person from calling 911.

“Two additional warrants for preventing a telephone call were obtained for Magdalena. An additional warrant for driver failing to report an accident was issued for Romeo,” police said.

Police believe the trio may be connected to other crimes in the area.

“We’re asking anyone with information about the suspects or who may have encountered the suspects to contact us,” the FCPD said.

Detectives can be contacted at 703-691-2131. The department also accepts anonymous tips by phone (1-866-411-TIPS), text (type “FCCS” plus tip to 847411) and online through Crime Solvers.

The FCPD offers cash rewards of $100 to $1,000 to tipsters who provide information that leads to an arrest.

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Fairfax County Public Schools (file photo)

Fairfax County Public Schools failed to give needed educational services to “thousands” of students with disabilities when it pivoted to virtual learning due to COVID-19 in 2020, federal officials say.

FCPS must compensate all affected students for the lost services as part of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, which was investigating reports that the school system had violated students’ right to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE).

“I am relieved that the more than 25,000 students with disabilities in Fairfax County will now receive services federal law promises to them, even during a pandemic, to ensure their equal access to education,” Education Department Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon said in a news release announcing the agreement yesterday.

FCPS said in a statement that it will convene meetings with all current and former students who attended during the “pandemic period” from April 14, 2020 to June 16, 2022 to discuss their Individualized Education Program (IEP) and Section 504 plans.

IEPs are written plans that establish services and academic goals for students in special education. Section 504 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that get federal funding and requires public school districts to provide a FAPE.

The education department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) opened investigations into FCPS and districts in Indiana, Seattle and Los Angeles in January 2021, citing local news reports where parents said schools delayed or neglected to deliver the specialized services their kids need.

While acknowledging the pandemic’s “unique challenges,” which prompted widespread school closures in an effort to limit Covid’s spread, OCR says that doesn’t relieve schools of their responsibility to educate students in accordance with their specific needs.

After going fully virtual in spring 2020, FCPS started reintroducing in-person classes that October, but it didn’t bring back all students, five days a week, until August 2021.

Though FCPS attempted to address learning losses with expanded summer programs, OCR reports that the school system “inappropriately reduced and limited services” to students with disabilities, failed to “accurately or sufficiently” track the services it was providing, and “refused even to entertain compensatory education for services it did not or could not provide due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“The evidence strongly suggests that appropriate remedial services still remain unavailable, as a practical matter, to the many thousands of students with disabilities in the Division who may need them,” OCR said in a letter to Superintendent Michelle Reid.

As of this past February, FCPS had only provided recovery services to 1,070 students with IEPs and eight students with Section 504 plans, OCR said. 15.5% of the over 180,000 students who attend FCPS this school year have disabilities, according to state data.

Under the agreement, FCPS must get OCR’s approval for plans to compensate students, appoint an administrator to implement those plans, notify parents and guardians, and develop an electronic system by Jan. 17 to track which students need additional services and what accommodations are provided.

“As we emerge from the global pandemic, FCPS remains committed to working diligently to provide the support needed to ensure each and every student recovers from learning loss,” the school system said. “FCPS has and will continue to leverage resources to ensure students with the greatest need receive prioritized support for enhanced outcomes.” Read More

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Several northbound lanes on I-495 are closed near the Dulles Access Road following a multi-vehicle crash (via VDOT)

(Updated at 3:40 p.m.) One person was killed this morning in a multi-vehicle crash on the Capital Beltway (I-495) in Tysons.

The Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department had reported that one person had sustained injuries considered life-threatening, but the fatality wasn’t confirmed until just after 10 a.m. by the Virginia State Police.

VSP said it responded to the crash in the northbound lanes of I-495 near the exit for Route 267 at 6:52 a.m.

According to VSP, the driver of a 2019 Ford F-150 pickup — identified as Robert A. Blakely, 71, from D.C. — was “ejected from his vehicle” and died at the scene. A passenger in another vehicle received treatment for minor injuries.

The crash shut down the northbound Express Lanes and multiple general lanes on I-495 at the Dulles Access Road for hours during this morning’s rush hour, prompting vehicles in the toll lanes to be diverted at Route 7.

By 9 a.m., traffic backups extended approximately 9.8 miles to the end of the Express Lanes in North Springfield, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation’s traffic cameras.

This is the second major crash on the Beltway in as many days. During yesterday’s evening rush hour, a man died after being struck by an SUV near the Braddock Road exit. He had gotten out of the tractor-trailer he was driving following a collision with a sedan.

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The northbound I-495 Express Lanes are closed near the Braddock Road exit after a fatal crash (via VDOT)

A tractor-trailer driver died tonight after being hit by an SUV on the Capital Beltway (I-495) near Braddock Road.

According to Virginia State Police, the tractor-trailer driver had exited his vehicle after he collided with a sedan on northbound I-495 approaching the Braddock Road exit in North Springfield, sending the sedan into the left shoulder of the toll lanes.

“The driver of the tractor-trailer exited his vehicle and was running across the Express Lanes towards the sedan when he was struck by an SUV traveling north in the Express Lanes,” VSP said in a news release.

Troopers responded to the crash at 7:53 p.m., and the tractor-trailer driver was taken to Inova Fairfax Hospital, where he ultimately died.

All northbound I-495 lanes have been closed to traffic, as police investigate the crash. A Fairfax Alert says to expect extended delays.

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The Georgia-based pizza restaurant Mellow Mushroom will open a location in Vienna (courtesy Shannon Curl/Mellow Mushroom)

Mellow Mushroom is officially coming to the Town of Vienna.

The Atlanta, Georgia-based pizza restaurant has signed a franchise agreement to open a new location at 444 Maple Avenue, the four-story, mixed-use development replacing the now-demolished Vienna Wolf Trap Hotel and Tequila Grande at the corner of Nutley Street.

FFXnow’s sister site, Tysons Reporter, noted early this year that Mellow Mushroom was featured as a leased tenant in a property brochure for the project, but the business didn’t confirm that the location until Monday (Nov. 28).

“We are extremely excited to bring the Mellow Mushroom brand to Vienna,” franchise owner Jay Shah said in the press release. “The support of this community and the Mellow Mushroom team have helped us grow four successful Mellow Mushroom restaurants.”

The restaurant will be operated by the franchisee Vienna Pizza LLC, whose owners also have Mellow Mushrooms in Short Pump, Chantilly, Virginia Beach and Fredericksburg.

Founded in Atlanta in 1974, Mellow Mushroom now has locations in 21 states, including restaurants in Herndon and Chantilly. In addition to pizza, it sells calzones, hoagies and other sandwiches, burgers, salads, and both cocktails and “mocktails”:

Each Mellow Mushroom is unique in its design and décor and frequently captures unique aspects of the local community. The cornerstone of the Mellow Mushroom menu is stone-baked pizzas featuring a crust made from five simple ingredients, including water from Appalachian Mountain springs. Other menu highlights are freshly made salads, handcrafted cocktails, and a wide selection of beers, many of them local.

Mellow Mushroom didn’t return an inquiry about a possible opening timeframe by press time.

The vacated hotel and Tequila Grande buildings were razed this spring, but nothing appears to have been built on the 2.79-acre site yet. Developer Hekemian & Co. estimated in February that construction would take 18 to 20 months.

The 444 Maple project will consist of a four-story, 151-unit residential building with approximately 20,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space, supported by plazas and two levels of parking.

In addition to Mellow Mushroom, Hekemian’s marketing brochure indicates that space has been leased to the restaurant Tom Yum Thai and Gloss Nails salon. There are still three available commercial suites.

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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. Read More

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