Scaling the Green Monster 

In an odd alliance, smart-growth advocates embrace sprawl in Chesterfield.

click to enlarge news44_magnolia_green_200.jpg

Maybe it's just Halloween, but the Green Monster is back, zombielike, from the dead.

The monster is Magnolia Green, a gigantic residential development in western Chesterfield County rezoned for 4,886 houses nearly 20 years ago that has long been an icon for out-of-control suburban sprawl. It finally seemed to die last spring with the financial crisis spiking its heart. Lower Magnolia Green was put on the auction block. There were no bidders.

Now, Upper Magnolia Green might be back from the grave, albeit in an entirely new form. Talks are afoot to turn part of the tract into a large-scale retail and office complex with an educational facility, medical-research center and perhaps even an exposition center on the order of Verizon Center in Washington.

Smart-growth politicians such as Marleen Durfee, supervisor of the Matoaca District, see the development as a chance to change what was bad zoning. Developers, such as Salvatore Cangiano of Leesburg, who once owned all of Magnolia Green and still has the upper part, envision a way to turn a stumbling investment around.

Cangiano says he and other developers were invited for discussions in recent weeks with county officials about extending the Powhite Parkway nine miles from its current terminus at state Route 288 southwest to Route 360 at Skinquarter Road. Providing few details, Cangiano says what might be possible is a mixed-use development divorced from the type of sprawl that has infected western Chesterfield along Route 360, choking roads and schools. “They are small boxes,” he says. “It has nothing to do with us.”

What could be in mind is a much bigger project that takes advantage of the “very strategically located” tract, says Cangiano, whose company has about 40 commercial real estate projects going on the East Coast. The project could involve 250 to 300 acres in Upper Magnolia Green that are already zoned for commercial use.

Durfee says she is “excited about the chance to rethink Magnolia Green.” The original plan “had an enormous impact on smart-growth ideas,” she says and a rezoning could be an opportunity to set a new framework for the county, which is revising its comprehensive plan. And the county can ill-afford to pass up development opportunities that could lure companies and jobs. “We always take a look at building jobs,” says Chesterfield County's administrator, Jay Stegmaier. “We export 30 percent of our work force on a daily basis.”

Still, the idea faces challenging realities. Nearby, another recent mixed-use project, Westchester Commons at Route 288 and Midlothian Turnpike, was pitched as pedestrian-friendly upscale retail and residential development. But the retail has been anything but upscale, and the Main Street portion remains largely vacant, which will likely make investors skittish. Cangiano says he's not worried about money. “We have our own banks and when the economy is bad, this is the time to plan and build because it is cheaper,” he says.

The key is extending Powhite Parkway. The project has been on planners' books for years but a lack of state highway funds has kept the project on ice. One idea would be to build the extension with public bonds and a public-private partnership.

Extending the Powhite would go against a key tenet of smart growth, however, as it will push development once again away from existing retail corridors in the county and the city. But Chesterfield could use the project's revenue since decades of bad planning has saddled it with too many homes and not enough business.


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