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EXCLUSIVE: Board Acts as Walmart Eyes Shirlington Site

Arlington is taking action to fend off potential by-right development by big box retailers, like Walmart, in the county’s industrial areas.

Just before adjourning for the summer, the County Board quickly and unanimously passed an item that did not appear on the board agenda. The item, a request to advertise public hearings, is the first step to passing a zoning amendment that would effectively prevent Walmart, Target and other large-format retailers (including certain supermarkets) from building stores without the Board’s prior approval.

The Board took the action as Walmart eyes an industrial site near Shirlington, adjacent to I-395 and the former Washington Golf store, for potential development. A source tells that the retail giant is in the very early stages of a plan to build one of its new, multi-story urban-style stores, like those proposed for the District and Tysons Corner, at the site, which is currently occupied by a large car storage lot. The store, according to the source, would be two to three stories high with a smaller footprint than the typical, suburban Walmart store.

The proposed zoning amendment advertised Tuesday night specifies that any building in a “C-1” or “C-2” commercial zone, with a “gross floor area of 50,000 square feet or more on any level” would be subject to prior approval by the County Board under a Special Exception Use Permit. The exception would also apply to buildings with 200 or more parking spaces. Under the current zoning ordinance, Walmart would be able to build a store on the Shirlington site “by right” — without Board approval — a source with knowledge of zoning issues tells us.

Arlington County Planning Director Bob Brosnan says that the expanse of industrial space along Four Mile Run, near Shirlington, makes Arlington “potentially vulnerable” to the new retail trend of urban big box development.

“Nationally, these large-format operators are looking to go more urban,” Brosnan said. “So it’s really that growing fear that has led us to advertise this.”

The goal, Brosnan said, is not to block Walmart from coming to the county. Rather, the goal is to enable the County Board to set conditions that could mitigate some of the traffic and other adverse impacts of large-format retail development. For instance, the Board may require a store on the car lot site to work with the state to obtain direct access from I-395, instead of allowing customers to clog up the low-capacity I-395 exit onto Shirlington Road, which is adjacent to a heavily-used bicycle and pedestrian crossing.

“Ultimately, if you don’t have good road access, it’s going to be difficult,” Brosnan said.

Hearings will now be held on the proposed zoning ordinance amendment. The Board is expected to consider the amendment in September, when it comes back from its summer break. In its report to the board, county staff noted that Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William counties have all recently passed similar zoning amendments aimed at large-scale developments.

County spokesman Mary Curtius said the Request to Advertise was not on the Board’s official agenda because it was still being prepared as the agenda was published, and staff wanted to get the request approved before the Board’s summer break. The item’s last-minute passage was “fairly typical,” she said.

So far, Walmart has not responded to a request for comment.

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