- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2001

Fairfax County, Va. planners are poised to vote tonight on a proposed town center in Merrifield, an often-overlooked area in central Fairfax, but opponents say the project would be too far from the nearest Metro station.

A report last year by a task force of Merrifield business leaders and residents recommended several ways to revitalize the unincorporated area, including a proposal for a town center about two-thirds of a mile from the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station.

"Right off the bat, they located it too far from the Metro," said Paul S. Hughes, president of the Fairfax Coalition for Smarter Growth, an environmental group that opposes several task force recommendations.

Project proponents say the town center would be within reasonable walking distance of the station, but add that the retailers who would locate in the center wouldn't depend on Metro traffic anyway.

The Fairfax planning commission will hold a hearing on the report tonight. The planners could vote on the proposal immediately after the hearing, or they could delay it, according to a commission spokesman.

If the planners endorse the proposal, it will be sent to the county Board of Supervisors for final approval.

The task force report also calls for more sidewalks, better streetscaping, open space and zoning changes to allow denser development in some areas of Merrifield.

The unincorporated area is between Falls Church and Fairfax cities, an area framed by Interstate 66, the Capital Beltway, Route 50 and Prosperity Avenue.

Fairfax County Supervisor Gerald Connolly, a Democrat who represents Merrifield, said the task force was charged with recommending ways to make the area "more functional" and "pedestrian friendly."

The Board of Fairfax County Supervisors appointed the task force in 1998. It issued its final report in April.

Mr. Hughes said the proposed location of the Merrifield town center is one of his group's biggest gripes with the task force's recommendations.

Town centers tend to mix businesses, apartments and hotels. Developers like to build the centers near existing or planned transit stops so residents will not have to drive to neighboring communities.

Sterling Wheeler, a Fairfax planner, said the town center would be roughly 3,400 feet or about two-thirds of a mile from the exit of the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station.

He said town centers can thrive without being close to transit stops. He cited the Reston Town Center in northwestern Fairfax, which was developed near the site of a proposed Metro station that is not expected to be built for several years.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth also feels the task force did not gather enough input from Merrifield's residents and business owners before issuing its report, Mr. Hughes said.

Fairfax economic development chief Gerald L. Gordon said Merrifield is often overlooked by businesses, even though it is home to several big employers like Exxon Mobil Corp., which has an office and more than 1,000 employees in the area.

Expanding businesses and firms moving to Fairfax usually do not show much interest in Merrifield, choosing higher-profile locations like McLean, Vienna and Reston, Mr. Gordon said.

There is 7.1 million square feet of office space in Merrifield, of which 42,840 square feet or less than 1 percent is vacant, according to Alexandria-based real estate research firm Delta Associates.

The average vacancy rate in Northern Virginia is 3.5 percent, Delta said.

"Overall, the Merrifield submarket is very healthy," said Brian J. McMullan, a vice president for Northern Virginia real estate brokerage Staubach Co.

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