By Antonio Olivo April 16, 2017
Ever since plans for a streetcar along Northern Virginia’s Columbia Pike died in 2014, an effort to revitalize the struggling Baileys Crossroads area in Fairfax County has been marked by frustration.
The latest headache: A group of homeless men began squatting in two vacant houses that are part of an idle project for a new shopping center off Leesburg Pike, aggravating neighbors who see their community of roughly 26,000 residents succumbing to crime and other problems instead of the promised improvements that would make Baileys Crossroads a walkable urban center like nearby Shirlington.
“I drove back into my yard one day and I saw somebody’s butt hanging out of the window,” said Nick Ferk, 66, describing a recent party he witnessed inside one of the empty houses that sits next to the home he has owned since 1979. “I said, ‘Well, this isn’t right.’ I’m so disappointed in the county.”
Fairfax County officials say the two houses and an adjacent storefront building that is also vacant are slated to be demolished within the next few weeks after dozens of calls to police about loitering and vagrancy.
A project approved in January 2016 to build a shopping plaza with a drive-through pharmacy at the site experienced a series of delays but is now scheduled to begin construction in May, said Peter Batten, a principal for the site’s developer, Spectrum Development.
“We’ve boarded up all the buildings and secured the buildings,” said Batten, whose company acquired the two houses in February. “We took it seriously and jumped on it quickly.”
Overall, the effort to revitalize the traffic-clogged area of strip malls, apartment complexes and brick rambler homes where Columbia and Leesburg pikes intersect has foundered since Arlington County decided against moving forward with the streetcar project amid controversy over its $550 million price tag, Fairfax officials say. The loss of the streetcar derailed an effort to revive the Skyline office tower complex, once an economic hub where restaurants and shops catered to the federal employees and government contractors who worked at the 2.6 million-square-foot site.
The complex, which was to be a streetcar destination, went into foreclosure after federal sequestration cuts emptied half the offices. It was sold in a December auction for $200 million, with no current plans for redevelopment, according to county officials.
On Columbia Pike, a project to build townhouses and apartment buildings died last year when the company behind the project — Avalon Bay Communities — pulled out after facing local opposition and several years of bureaucratic delays. “Eventually, it got to the point where there were other investment opportunities that were more compelling,” said Matt Birenbaum, chief investment officer for Avalon Bay.
The property’s owner, the Weissburg Co., is looking for a new developer, according to the county, which is considering a rezoning application that would allow multifamily residential development.
Fairfax Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason), whose district includes Baileys Crossroads, said finding developers for the area without the lure of a streetcar “is not an easy job.”
Fairfax has targeted the area for revitalization since the mid-1980s — over the years widening roads, building sidewalks and removing a garbage dump.
The area is now partially included in a comprehensive plan adopted by the Board of Supervisors in 2015 that focuses mainly on the Seven Corners community about 2½ miles away. The plan calls for three villages to be built around a new street grid over the next 40 years, with restaurants, shops and several thousand homes.
Gross said Baileys Crossroads still has appeal; she pointed to a pending project to build 157 flexible live-work units — or “e-lofts” — inside a vacant office building on Columbia Pike as proof of its allure for young professionals.
Plans by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission to bring rapid bus transit to a portion of Leesburg Pike that includes Baileys Crossroads could spark more interest, county officials say, but road-widening needed for that is at least 20 years away.
“Revitalization does take longer,” Gross said. “It’s a lot more expensive than starting from scratch.”
Critics say the county’s vision for Baileys Crossroads weakened after the streetcar plans fell through.
Alison Oleson, a member of the board of the Baileys Crossroads/Seven Corners Revitalization Corp., said her community group, serving as a first rung for development, reviews a hodgepodge of proposals for Baileys Crossroads, many of them unviable.
“We’re not getting anybody saying, ‘Let’s make this area the next Springfield or the next Mosaic,’ ” Oleson said, referring to two recently revived neighborhoods in the county. “We’re not seeing any of those kinds of projects come forward.”
She blames a concentration of poverty in Baileys Crossroads, coupled with recent news reports about gang activity and other crime.
The homeless men inside the vacant houses reinforced worries that the area is veering in the wrong direction, she said.
“That scares away revitalization efforts, and it affects our housing values around there,” Oleson said.
Wayne Valis, 72, has lived in Baileys Crossroads since he was a boy, when it was rural farmland. Lately, his childhood memories have been eclipsed by concerns about traffic and his family’s safety.
One night, Valis and his wife, Angela, were returning home when a group of men they’d seen near the vacant houses stepped into their car’s path, stopping them briefly before allowing them to pass, he said.
“It’s been very discouraging,” Valis said, lamenting a lack of excitement in his aging community. “There’s nothing like in Shirlington, where you can go and walk around or there are little parklike areas or places to sit outside. It’s just strip malls and sprawl.”