Leaders commit to expediting South Alex cleanup, reconstruction

An early image of the fire from South Kings Highway, before the collapse of the structure. (Image courtesy of Dan Lagana)
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Fairfax County elected officials and redevelopment groups said this week that they will do all they can to ensure the South Alex project moves forward in the wake of Saturday’s devastating fire.

Speaking at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Chairman Jeff McKay said he has spoken with the property owners affected by Saturday’s four-alarm fire and said they “are eager to get going again.” Combined Properties, who owns the South Alex property, issued a statement over the weekend saying they intend stick with the project, and Craftmark Homes — owners of the Towns at South Alex townhouse development behind South Alex — has already been in touch with the county about next steps, according to McKay.

McKay, who previously served as Lee District Supervisor and worked for years to help make the South Alex project happen, said a team of senior staff from the county’s Land Development Services department will be dedicated to assisting those dedicated to the fire with permitting and related issues.

“The last thing we can let happen here, at such an important revitalization site, is let it sit the way it is now for a prolonged period of time,” McKay said. “This was a signature revitalization site on Richmond Highway.”

South Alex had been planned to be a mixed-use development featuring 400 apartments and 44,000 feet of ground-level retail anchored by an Aldi grocery store, in addition to the 41-townhome development to the rear of the property. The fire wiped out all five buildings under construction for the mixed-use development, and leveled 14 under-construction townhouses. Another 14 townhouses were damaged by the heat and debris from the fire, along with four single-family houses, the Shelby apartments and the Kings Gardens Apartments.

New Lee District Supervisor Rodney Lusk said he spoke with Craftmark Homes earlier this week and had scheduled a meeting with Combined Properties. He called South Alex “a signature project for the corridor,” and said his office would work to make sure the cleanup and reconstruction moved as quickly as possible.

“This is the type of project we want to see there,” Lusk said. “To have it go up in flames in the way that it did is somewhat devastating.” 

The Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation, which promotes economic development along the Richmond Highway corridor, released a statement earlier this week calling the fire a “temporary setback” to ongoing redevelopment efforts envisioned as part of the Embark Richmond Highway plan.

“SFDC looks forward to seeing the South Alex project and other exciting new redevelopment projects along Richmond Highway come to fruition,” SFDC Board President Mark Viani and Executive Director Evan Kaufman said in the statement. “The SFDC stands ready to provide its full support and assistance to the county, private businesses, and residents affected by the fire.”

McKay, Lusk and Mount Vernon Supervisor Dan Storck said at Tuesday’s meeting that they had toured the site shortly after the fire was under control. Each marveled at the devastation, and all heaped praise on the firefighters and other first responders who ensured that the massive fire did not spread from the South Alex property.

“I’ve never seen a fire of this magnitude ever before,” McKay said. “And it happened in an instant.”

“It looked like someone had dropped some bombs,” Lusk said. “It looked like a war zone.”

Lusk noted that a number of propane tanks on the site did not explode during the fire, one of the few strokes of luck that helped keep the fire from being an even worse event.

“[The firefighters] did everything possible … to make sure the fire didn’t extend to those adjacent properties,” Lusk said. “Clearly this could have been a lot worse in terms of the loss of property.”