Will another apartment complex spark a long-awaited revitalization of North Woodbridge – or just more traffic and school overcrowding?
That was the crux of the debate Tuesday, when the Prince William County Board of Supervisors considered a redesign of Rivergate, a development of up to 720 apartments proposed for the Occoquan Reservoir waterfront that was initially approved back in 2005 but shelved for nine years because of the recession.
Although once touted as a premier project that would breathe new life into an area beset by used car lots and blighted strip malls, Rivergate came under fire in recent months because many considered its more modest new design – three five-story buildings instead of 15-story high rises – just more of the same along an increasingly apartment-clogged U.S. 1 corridor.
Supervisor Frank Principi, a Democrat who represents the Woodbridge district where Rivergate will be built, agreed and lobbied hard for residents to speak out against the project. Sixteen residents complied, some of whom complained about two-hour commutes to Washington and 45-minute trips to the grocery store, all because U.S. 1 is already “a traffic nightmare.”
School Board members Loree Williams and Lillian Jessie, who represent the eastern Prince William magisterial districts most affected by the new apartments – also urged the board to reject developer IDI Management’s revised proposal for Rivergate, saying existing school buildings can’t handle hundreds of new residents.
But a majority of supervisors said they see the project differently.
In a 5 to 2 vote – with Principi and Supervisor Mike May, R-Occoquan, dissenting – the board approved the new Rivergate plan, saying it is the county’s best shot for the redevelopment needed in North Woodbridge.
Supervisor Marty Nohe, R-Coles, who made the motion to approve after Principi refused, said he grew up in North Woodbridge and wants to see it developed into something the county can be proud of.
“If we kick Rivergate out of here tonight, the message will be to anyone who’s thinking about building retail, or office, or commercial, or mixed-use that Prince William County Board of Supervisors is not committed to this area, is not committed to quality development,” Nohe said. “I think this is the development that’s going to inspire the kind of commercial development we need by setting the standard.”
Nohe’s motion was seconded by Supervisor Maureen Caddigan, R-Potomac, who said it’s the Woodbridge district’s turn for redevelopment along U.S. 1.
Board Chairman Corey Stewart, R-At Large, agreed, insisting that high-quality commercial development would only occur if the county greenlights more residential building first.
Stewart also acknowledged that he was the only board member to vote against the project in 2005, a decision he said was wrong because he “didn’t understand” then that government can’t dictate commercial development when the market can’t support it.
“It’s the laws of economics,” he added. “We can’t dictate that someone build offices.”
As an example, Stewart mentioned Potomac Town Center at Stonebridge, which he said only happened because Potomac Club, a mix of apartments and town homes, was built first.
“I voted against that, too,” Stewart said. “That was a mistake, too. You know why? Because it was the Potomac Club and the residential that led to Stonebridge, which is anchored by the Wegmans, which has led to all sorts of other retail. And now we’re getting medical office space and the whole thing is taking off. The whole Route 1 corridor is booming.”
Stewart said he “has a lot of respect” for concerns expressed by opponents and school board members but said residents surely don’t want North Woodbridge to remain the way it is now, adding: “Sometimes you’ve just got to take the plunge and move forward.”
Prior to the vote, about a dozen speakers – including business owners Terry Quinn, of Quinn’s Goldsmith, and Nelson Head, of Dixie Bones – agreed with that sentiment, noting that more residents would spur more commercial growth.
“This new development is quality. It will be the first impression that people see when they come into Prince William County,” Quinn said. “This is what we want to attract, quality businesses, quality people. Look at Wegmans, look at Stonebridge. That’s quality. We want more quality in our county.”
Mike Lubeley, the attorney for IDI Management, said the board’s rejection would not necessarily stop apartments from coming, since 720 had already been approved back in 2005.
But in an interview after the meeting, Lubeley said new post-recession financing rules would likely keep the previously planned high rises from being built in the near-term, which is why IDI altered its plans.
“The financing for that type of project eroded completely with the new credit standards the government’s imposed,” Lubeley said, adding that such high-rise projects are really only economically feasible in higher-priced downtown markets.
Still, Lubeley said the new building is preferable to the old design in many ways, including new provisions for scenic streetscapes for both Annapolis and Marina ways.
“Most people, if they objectively look at both designs, say they like the new one better,” Lubeley said.
Principi said his office would continue to work toward the vision of a “New Woodbridge” despite his disagreement with the board’s decision for his district, which he said will likely see almost 10,000 new apartments in coming years.
But he noted that supervisors would likely have to consider new taxes to deal with additional school, traffic and fire and rescue needs as a result.
“We’re going to be saddled with more apartments and more traffic and more school overcrowding,” he added. “How is the board going to deal with that? I don’t know. Are we going to have to raise taxes next spring to deal with the lack of infrastructure in the district? I don’t know.”