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

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.”

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