Commercial Vitality Wanted at Bailey’s, 7 Corners But Inertia & Cohesion Missing

MASON DISTRICT SUPERVISOR Penny Gross denied separate offers for a bus depot and a bazaar to takeover the now-bankrupt Toys R’ Us’s lot in Bailey’s Crossroads, which BC7RC backed, but the group often feels its input on Gross’s agenda is unwanted. (Photo: News-Press)

The roughly three-mile stretch of land that encompasses Bailey’s Crossroads and Seven Corners has been due for some tender love and care in the form of commercial revitalization with its derelict storefronts and siloed business community dotting the scenery. Generating the momentum and continuity to do so, however, still eludes those who’ve elected to help get this project off the runway.

The non-profit, all-volunteer Bailey’s Crossroads Seven Corners Revitalization Corporation (BC7RC for short) has been in existence for roughly 10 years. It was originally put forward by Mason District supervisor Penny Gross, who decided the two adjacent locales should be jointly served, piggybacking off the county’s sweeping community revitalization plan that it released in the mid-1980s. The purpose of BC7RC was to be the mouthpiece for the county’s development objectives to the community at-large, while also providing the community an outlet to provide feedback to the county. But those who’ve taken on the role of overseeing BC7RC aren’t optimistic about how the group’s goals are trending at the moment.

“Since I’ve been here I’ve seen over eight tower cranes crossing east into Carlin Springs Rd. and the only development we’ve seen in Bailey’s Crossroads are 78 townhomes by Stanley Martin [Homes],” Sean Ek, a board member since 2017, said while referencing the constant development in neighboring Arlington County with his cranes comment. “But we’ve also seen HHGregg, Toys R’ Us and Babies R’ Us leave the area. We’re going in the wrong direction.”

To be fair, it hasn’t been a winless pursuit. BC7RC’s interim president Alison Oleson acknowledges that landing the District Taco at the Skyline Center, the ever-bustling Chick-fil-A at the Willston II shopping center and the Tom Dolan Swim School that opened a couple of stores down from the Chick-fil-A are all good gets for the area. They are anchored by, according to Oleson, one of the most active Home Depots in the country just across Route 50 in Seven Corners. And the e-lofts, an upscale apartment complex that recently broke ground at the intersection of Columbia Pike and Carlin Springs Rd., is another positive step. Add in a vibrant, international food scene and the payoff of a commercial overhaul has merit.

Although, those highlights are countered by nagging problems. According to Ek, Mason District has the largest office vacancy in Fairfax County with 44 percent of it not in use. Oleson herself wasn’t too enthusiastic to announce that the Chili’s on Leesburg Pike is being replaced by a Denny’s. A lack of Metro access and the commercial investment those stations attract is a subtle, but compounding issue as well.

Yet Gross is upbeat when assessing the area’s possibilities. The recently bankrupted Toys R’ Us and Babies R’ Us lots aren’t in operation, but both stores don’t qualify as fallow as they remain under lease and are paying their rents. It’s preventing any redevelopment from occurring at the moment, though the right pitch could change all that. Gross also identifies a special service company that’s taken an interest in the Skyline Center as an opportunity for BC7RC to get involved. To her, she doesn’t believe she and BC7RC are on the same page about what revitalization constitutes.

“I believe you need to go big,” Gross said. “[BC7RC] needs a broader business component on its board. It would be helpful in educating the whole board in the potential in Bailey’s and Seven Corners area. There’s great potential there; don’t be afraid of it.”

Still, the recent flight of big box stores Ek mentioned and the mirror that Arlington holds up daily — with its new apartment structures and mixed-use developments springing to life just a few hundred yards away from the heart of Bailey’s — has made it hard not to question when those prospects will come to fruition. A diagnosis by Oleson concludes there isn’t enough interest at the county or commercial level in moving the process along.

“I’d like to see some more proactive people in our area,” Oleson said. “There was a Seven Corners task force a few years ago, and it determined that the demographics [of Seven Corners and Bailey’s Crossroads] don’t support positive development. I have a hard time believing that though as Mosaic [District in Merrifield] has demographics that were about the same and it came along just fine.”

One crucial difference, which both Ek and Oleson note, is the complexion of business ownership between Mosaic and BC7RC’s area of focus. The New York Times reported back in 2012 that South Carolina-based private retail developer Edens was the primary architect in revamping Merrifield.

For Bailey’s and Seven Corners, a fractured ownership map makes it difficult to convince them to unite under the BC7RC banner. Bringing local business owners onto BC7RC’s board, rather than simply people who live in the community, was what Gross tasked current members to do in late 2017 after meeting with a consultant. Gross emphasized that the peer-to-peer support business owners could offer, which she likened to how she associates with other politicians, would allow BC7RC to better direct its efforts.

However, it’s been a tricky feat to pull off. Part of it is a general complacency from property owners who aren’t attached to the surrounding community, per Oleson. Ek added on to that independently when he said business and property owners don’t live in the area, so they struggle with seeing the value in joining the board and trying to enrich the commercial landscape. Another part Oleson pointed out is that BC7RC attempts to function as a de facto chamber of commerce, but without the resources and reputation a chamber embodies — such as recruiting developers and business owners to the area.

Revitalizing what the county refers to as the Bailey’s Crossroads Community Business Center (CBC) in its Comprehensive Plan, revised this past October, has been an ongoing mission for decades. The plan notes that “Bailey’s CBC has developed largely as a concentration of strip-malls and shopping centers without a strong sense of community identity.” BC7RC has been trying to create some identity by hosting community events, such as an Octoberfest this fall at the soon-to-be built Interim Park on Columbia Pike. Oleson has ambitions of doing a small business workshop in order to transfer those community vibes into a commercial setting and bringing in more public art, like last year’s INOUT display at Seven Corners.

It comes down to transparency and support from the local government, which BC7RC feels is hit or miss.

Gross’s decision to pass on allowing either a bus depot or a bazaar to take over the Toys R’ Us lot was prudent in the eyes of BC7RC. And both are excited about the prosperity that will flow from Amazon’s HQ2 site in Crystal City into the peripheral areas such as theirs.

Awareness, or lack thereof, about the county’s plans remains a sticking point. For instance, Ek cited the land swap agreement the county entered into to build the new homeless shelter where the old animal shelter was located on Seminary Rd. after a residential project by Avalon Bay fell through. BC7RC only found out about the plans for the homeless shelter after the deal had been made and the county wanted the group’s opinion on how many beds the shelter should provide. Oleson and Ek also want the county to find a way to hire a part-time administrative assistant for BC7RC who could set up meetings with local business owners to sell them on board membership.

“If you were to rate our relationship with our supervisor, it could be better. Much better. To [Gross’s] credit, she has told us what we need to do. But mostly it’s, ‘Here’s my agenda. It’s open for discussion, but this is what we’re doing,’” Ek said. Oleson added separately, “We’re not actively recruiting positive development into our area. Our board could do better if we had the support staff to do that and I think our supervisor should be coordinating that.”

Gross, meanwhile, believes the lack of coordination goes both ways.

“There’s been very little communication and that disappoints me,” Gross said. “I’m always available.”