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After ‘Major Screw Up,’ Planning Commission Recommends Denial of API Building Rezoning

by Karen Goff — June 17, 2016 at 9:40 am 21 Comments

Former API Building1

The Marcel Breuer-designed building in Reston will get a reprieve after some of the Fairfax County Planning Commission admitted “a major screw up” by them. The commission will send Sekas Homes rezoning application to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors with a recommendation for denial.

“This was a major screw up,” said At-Large Member James Hart. “I hope this is a wake up call to us that we need to make sure something like this does not happen again.”

The building on Sunrise Valley Drive is the only Breuer-designed building in Virginia. Breuer is a famed architect of the Brutalist style of the 1960s and 1970s. The building housed the American Press Institute (API) from 1974 to 2012. It has been vacant since 2012, when API merged with the Newspaper Association of America.

Sekas Homes is planning to rezone the property to build 34 townhomes and 10 condos. A planning commission staff report earlier this year recommended the project for approval.

But that was before the protest of the last few weeks, including a petition signed by more than 1,300 people and several speakers at a May planning commission public hearing, made the commission aware of the building’s historic significance.

The building has not been considered for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places because it is less than 50 years old.

“This is a treasure,” said Sully commissioner Karen Keys-Gamarra. “I understand we are bound by the comprehensive plan, but I think we made a mistake. I think we need to find some way to protect and preserve [the building] for our community.”

There was a long discussion among the commissioners about what to do with application. Frank de le Fe, who  represents Hunter Mill, the district in which the building is located, said he is sympathetic to the “passionate and extensive movement to delay or further defer decision this application.”

However, he said the commissioners are bound by the process of the comprehensive plan, and the historical significance of the building was not noted during that process two years ago.

He said he was making that recommendation with very mixed feelings, however.

“On a personal note, the recommendation I am about to make is one of the most difficult ones I have had to make in many years on the planning commission, especially as I look at the petitions,” he said.

Many on the board did not agree with de le Fe’s recommendation. They asked for a deferral of the decision, as well as further study of the reuse of the building.

That idea visibly upset developer John Sekas.

“I stuck my neck way out on a limb with this application,” Sekas told the board. “The owner wanted to take building down before we filed application. If this process goes any further, my neck gets cut off. ”

“I’m a developer of 30 years. For 30 years I have worked in this county. I have defended this county. The only reason we were [originally] deferred was to a small stormwater issue. We heard from no citizens other than architectural review [courses]. We have gotten calls from neighbors who WANT this project.”

The supervisors will likely further discuss the building’s historic impact before making their own decision.

The planning commission also unanimously passed a motion to recommend that the supervisors’ staff  “be directed to undertake whatever appropriate inventory of historic sites in Reston area we missed a year ago and may that effort be prioritized in light of this situation.”

  • Tammi Petrine

    John Sekas is to be commended for not turning on the bulldozer key. However his crew testified at the Reston P & Z meeting several months ago that ‘there is nothing of historical value on this site.’ Clearly that was not accurate. Thanks to the Fairfax Planning Commission for their foresight to recommend saving of this building. Now all eyes focus on our Supervisors…

    • Mike M

      Historical value is in the eye of the beholder. Hold on to your pocketbooks! The County might just pull a Lake House.

    • cRAzy

      Apparently, however, OUR (er, Supervisor Hudgins’) commissioner, Mr. Frank De La Fe, didn’t get the word, but then he rarely does.

      • LovingMyLife

        Your snarling, crappy demeanor is so tiresome. Really you should just leave Reston and go spend your remaining days on a beach. Maybe you’ll recover some joy in your life. You a sad little man.

        • Greg

          Grow up. Really. Do we need more hate?

    • John Farrell

      There is nothing historic about this monstrosity.

      The reason there is only one building by this alleged architect in Virginia is that no one else wanted their building to be this ugly.

  • Chuck Morningwood

    Maybe RA will buy it?

  • Reston.All.Grown.Up

    “…If this process goes any further, my neck gets cut off. ”

  • RunDMC

    I really like the idea that was proposed here a few weeks ago of making it the new Reston Library- assuming we wouldn’t have to pay a ton of money for renovations and/or asbestos removal. It’s a neat looking building, and I’d rather drive by a cool historical building than *yet another* block of boring townhomes.

  • Robert Mobley

    Neither Sekas or the county did their “due diligence” cultural or historic investigation – which is their responsibility – before moving ahead. Should their negligence condemn this significant work of architecture?

    • Greg

      A “significant” energy-wasting concrete box? Please.

    • TBird73

      Cultural or historic investigation?? Tell me genius, on what historic or cultural register does this building appear on???
      Oh, that’s right: NONE!
      Significant to you does not mean significant to the rest of us.

  • SueE

    Whether this building is saved or not; whether it becomes a temporary or new home for the Reston library or not; I think the fact that Restonians were made aware of the issue and made their voices heard is a positive thing. I’m sorry the developer isn’t happy, but there is a lot of development happening in Reston and not necessarily for the benefit of the community. And, Tetra is another issue. This is a time of huge change in our community and a time when it’s important for us to stay aware of what’s going on and make our opinions heard. I appreciate RestonNow and contributors who help me keep up!

  • concordpoint

    The Sekas plan is generic “milk toast” development. Not worthy of Reston. A plan that preserved and repurposed the building together with some residential density could be a win-win. I hope the BOS takes the time to get this right.

  • john lovaas

    We seem to owe some major thanks to Dennis Hays and the Reston Citizens Association as well as Ms. Riordan, formerly of API, for bringing this building’s significance and POSSIBLE utility as a library to the attention of the Reston community. One does have to wonder why the Planning Commissioner for the last 12 years was unaware of the API, its significance, or its potential. Thanks to the alert ones!

    • Greg

      It’s a significant eyesore. Tear it down.

    • John Farrell

      That eyesore was empty for 4 years.

      Where were Mr. Hays and Riordan for all of that time?

      Run away Nimbyism is not to be congratulated.

      • cRAzy

        Not seeing NIMBYism here.

        Just a two-fer opportunity to (a) preserve a piece of architectural history and (b) find a new home for our library–maybe at a cost less than building a new one.

        So, CONGRATULATIONS Mr. Hays and Ms. Riordan, and thanks!

        • John Farrell

          Using the preservation of that pile of concrete as an excuse to keep 44 families from living in Reston is a quintessential NIMBY tactic.

  • Greg

    More government incompetence. #doomed.

  • 30yearsinreston

    Another white elephant in the making

    The Library should remain on the North County area

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