Virginia Village pitched for mixed-use redevelopment
NEWS | October 10, 2019
Loudoun County has seen a surge in mixed-use development over the last few years, but that boom generally hasn’t included the town of Leesburg — until now.
A developer with a long history in the county, Keane Enterprises, is now advancing plans for the redevelopment of the aging Virginia Village shopping center into a mix of residential, retail and office space. The 18-acre strip mall has been a staple of the town dating back to the mid-1950s, and sits just a short walk from Leesburg’s historic downtown area.
Keane bought the property in 2017, and has been at work ever since drawing up plans to transform Virginia Village into a mixed-use space. The developer submitted plans to the town in late September for a development including up to 490 apartments, around 160 townhomes and condos, 105,000 square feet of office and 70,000 square feet of retail.
The town has tweaked its zoning rules over the last few years to allow for just this sort of mixed-use development, particularly as the sections of Loudoun along the Silver Line extension have seen massive growth. But Keane’s application will be a first for Leesburg, a factor that is sure to complicate the developer’s vision.
“This is a big thing for Leesburg, in terms of the size of it,” said Brian Cullen, Keane’s founding principal. “Hopefully this helps them understand how to better develop in this sort of way. That’s what they say they want and I think they’re going to need it.”
Cullen has kept his eye on the town’s growth over the years while working elsewhere in the county — his firm developed the Ashburn Ice House and the Willowsford community nearby in Aldie — and he’s become increasingly convinced that Leesburg is ready to move away from its “automotive-oriented” past.
He believes some townhomes built near the downtown core of Market Street have invigorated local shops and restaurants, and he’s heard anecdotally that town officials are eager to see more of that sort of development nearby. While Leesburg isn’t Metro accessible, Cullen nonetheless wants to embrace the sort of walkable ethos driving transit-oriented developments.
Considering the lack of apartment developments in the area, he foresees many service workers who are driving into town moving into such a development, rather than having to live in far-flung exurbs like Winchester or Charlestown, West Virginia. He hopes that will help many people walk to work, and further revitalize Leesburg’s downtown.
“We’ve got to be complementary to downtown, not competitive with downtown,” Cullen said. “It’s got to be frictionless to move in and out of those things in nonautomotive ways.”
While shops and restaurants will certainly be a big part of the new Virginia Village — Cullen envisions something like a gym standing alongside a variety of other eateries and retail — Keane is pitching open space as the main draw. The development is set to include two different parks at the center of the retail and residential buildings, in addition to an outdoor amphitheater that connects with a bicycle and pedestrian bridge stretching over to nearby Harrison Street.
“There’s really nowhere for people to just go hang out, outdoors,” Cullen said. “You want to be the place where, when people’s parents come to town, this is where they go.”
Despite Cullen’s praise for walkability and open space, the development will still be fundamentally a car-dependent one — the five-story mixed-use buildings will be built around structured parking garages, with a total of 1,450 spaces in all. Naturally, Cullen expects that will generate community concerns about traffic.
“That’s the immediate fear that people have,” Cullen said. “It’s local politics, the 10, 15, 20 people who town council members might hear from every day that make a difference.”
But, in general, he’s optimistic the plans will be well received. Cullen’s been careful to work closely with the Ours family, who built the shopping center, to embrace the site’s history, and he’s been making the rounds at community gatherings.
He hopes to have the town’s approval for the redevelopment by the second or third quarter of 2020, setting up a groundbreaking on the first phase by 2022. He plans to move west-to-east across the site, starting work on a second phase (which would include the pedestrian bridge) by 2025.
That approach would allow him to help any business in the existing shopping center remain on the property as the development continues, moving into one phase as he demolishes the rest.
In fact, Cullen says Virginia Village still has an occupancy rate in the high-90% range, so it’s not as if it’s struggling. But he sees so much potential in redeveloping that he’d much rather pursue that approach than simply keep leasing it as is.
“They’re not killer rents,” Cullen said. “We could continue to lease it if we needed to, but it’s not the best use of the property.”