Town Council members have expressed some serious concerns regarding the timeline for development at a proposed mixed-use project at a key town intersection.
The applicant for the Leegate development was before the Town Council for an initial public hearing Nov. 15. Developer Stanley Martin is requesting authority to build 430,000 square feet of office uses, 200,000 square feet of commercial uses, a 130-room hotel, two parking structures and 475 residential units—a combination of townhouses, two-over-two condominiums and multifamily units. The development would be located in the southwest quadrant of the East Market Street/Battlefield Parkway intersection, across from the Lowe’s Home Improvement store.
To move dirt on the project, the Town Council must first approve a rezoning, special exception and Town Plan amendment for the 77-acre development on land envisioned in the Town Plan as an area for regional office uses. The applicant, represented by Cooley, LLP, has stated that the market for regional office development has changed dramatically, and now successful office developments are bolstered by adjacent residential and retail uses. When the Planning Commission reviewed the application two years ago, it recommended denial, citing concerns with project design and phasing.
It was some of those same concerns that came to light last week as Town Council review kicked off. As currently proposed, only 100,000 square feet, of the total proposed 630,000 square feet of non-residential development, would be constructed in the project’s first two phases. The lion’s share of the non-residential development is not envisioned until phase 3, possibly in 2022. However, all but 70 of the proposed residential uses would be constructed in the first two phases.
“The phasing of this is totally inadequate,” Vice Mayor Kelly Burk said. “At buildout we get a guarantee of 100,000 square feet [of non-residential development]. That’s it.”
But Colleen Gillis, the applicant’s attorney, explained the rationale for the proposed phasing, as well as the developer’s move away from “traditional” office development.
“We along with others are reticent about making a commitment to large-scale office,” she explained. “We’re looking at this and [asking] what’s reasonable from an absorption perspective. We don’t want to over-saturate the market.”
Noting the high vacancy rate for office space in Loudoun, now at just under 20 percent, as well as the county’s low unemployment rate, Gills noted that there are currently not enough workers in the area to even fill the now-vacant office space.
However, Gillis emphasized that if the town staff is able to attract a large, corporate user that is seeking hundreds of thousands of square feet of office development, that timeline could easily be changed.
“If there is a user brought to us and they say we’d like to locate it here we’re off to the races,” she said.
Gillis pointed to another project she has been a part of in the approval process—One Loudoun in Ashburn. Often cited by many throughout Loudoun as a successful, vibrant, mixed-use development, she said the key to its success is that the residential infrastructure was in place before the non-residential development was in full swing.
Although it was clear that the council was not totally swayed, the development had some supporters in the audience last week. Eunggil Choi, owner of the U.S. Tae Kwon Do Academy off Cardinal Park Drive, said he supported the project because it would offer amenities to nearby businesses like his.
Under the proposal, the developer would extend Russell Branch Parkway to connect with Trailview Boulevard, allowing drivers wishing to access Cardinal Park Drive another way into, and out of, that area.
Other proffers include the dedication of land for the future Rt. 7/Battlefield Parkway interchange; $6.2 million in school contributions; $109,000 in public safety contributions; and the construction of shade structures at the Catoctin Skate Park. The developer is also proffering to dedicate 30 acres of floodplain for recreation space, including mountain bike trails.
Councilwoman Katie Sheldon Hammler said the council is going to have to ask itself some “tough questions” regarding this development, including whether that area of town can handle thousands of more drivers. Other than the land dedication, the developer is not proffering any construction funding for the interchange. The town has been awarded funding for initial design and studies, but does not yet have the estimated $25 million construction cost in hand.
With the applicant coming back before the council at its Nov. 29 meeting, and possibly the night prior for a work session, Councilman Tom Dunn asked Gillis to investigate whether the project could be phased differently with other uses. He also reminded his colleagues that not everything originally envisioned in the Town Plan has come to fruition, most especially the market for office development.
“We need to be willing to say let the market dictate what will happen. If the market won’t support it then it goes away anyway,” Dunn said. “Trying to live up to the Town Plan isn’t working. The market isn’t living up to the Town Plan.”