Mosaic District common area

The Mosaic District

Merrifield, Virginia

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By June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones

The following case study is an excerpt from Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Strategies for Urgent Challenges, a book published in 2021 as a companion volume to our award-winning book Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, first published in 2008 and updated in 2011. In the new book we argue that there are several urgent challenges with which the next generation of suburban retrofits must grapple both to raise the bar on the big project of retrofitting the least resilient and sustainable aspects of existing suburban form and to absorb new development that would otherwise produce further sprawl. It received the 2021 Great Places Book Award from the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA).

Copyright 2021, June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey. Reprinted with permission of the authors and publisher.

Challenges addressed:

  • Disrupt automobile dependence
  • Improve public health
  • Leverage social capital for equity
How does a retail development company with an unrivaled 50-year history of building grocery-anchored suburban strip malls retrofit itself in the face of rising vacancies, online competition, and market preferences for urbanism? This was the question that Jodie McLean, CEO of Edens, strategized with her team after being appointed president in 2002. Their answer is the Mosaic District, built on the 31-acre site of a dead multiplex theater in an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., just outside the Beltway. The result is a compact “mosaic” of uses lining highly walkable streetscapes and an active town green anchored by a new arthouse cinema.[1] Instead of strip malls designed to speed up transactions, Mosaic demonstrates the value of designing green mixed-use town centers for lingering and social experiences you can’t get in the surrounding burbs or online.

Mosaic District common area
Figure 1: Header image and image directly above: In addition to serving onsite residents, Mosaic is a popular destination for parents to get out of the house and bring their kids to the splash fountain or social activities in Strawberry Park. Strollers abound throughout the project but especially in this shared “front yard” surrounded by ground-level eateries and shops.
Photos by Phillip Jones, 2014 (header image) and 2018 (directly above).

For McLean, the business case revolves around how to best serve her customers’ changing needs. She knows precisely how much their discretionary income and time have declined and the advantages these give to e-commerce.[2] She’s fighting back by creating welcoming physical places that foster engagement and attract people out of their homes, fending off social isolation and the “loneliness epidemic.”[3] As McLean sums it up, “The people we are trying to serve have less money, less time, but a bigger need than ever to feel part of a community.… We are successful if we can drive our customers to make 3.5 trips here a week and 5 hours of dwell time.”[4] To do that, she has to build places that are extremely convenient and successfully engage customers in a community that makes them feel great—two goals that are very hard to do simultaneously.[5]

Can we combat loneliness through physical spaces designed to facilitate stronger communal ties? McLean had her team read Ray Oldenburg’s theories about “third places,” authentic local gathering places like pubs, coffee shops, and post offices that often serve as the centers of community life.[6] They then visited all of the new mixed-use town centers to see what they could improve on with their first experiment, the Mosaic District.

1980 diagram/map
Figure 2. 1980 figure-field diagram. Merrifield’s commercial district southwest of the intersection of I-66 and I-495, the Washington Beltway, featured large blocks and a mix of small office and industrial buildings, some garden centers, and a few apartment complexes. Much of what would become the Mosaic District centers on the wedge-shaped site that was a drive-in theater built in 1954. It sat south of U.S. Hwy 29 and west of Gallows Road, west of the Fairfax Plaza strip mall. Click image to view larger size.
Image by June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones.
2000 diagram/map
Figure 3. 2000 figure-field diagram. The drive-in theater went to seed after a 14-screen multiplex was built closer to US 29 and lasted 25 years (1984–2009). The Dunn-Loring Metrorail station opened in 1986 in the center median of I-66, straddling Gallows Road, with a park and ride lot to the station’s south. A pair of mid-rise office buildings arose east of the park and ride, each with their own large parking decks; the rest of the area developed piecemeal, in a car- and parking-oriented pattern. Click image to view larger size.
Image by June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones.
Future diagram/map
Figure 4. Future figure-field diagram. The Mosaic District Phase 1, a walkable, mixed-use town center with 2 million square feet organized around Strawberry Park and the Angelika Film Center, opened in 2012 and was completed in 2018. Phase 2 will extend the street grid through the to-be demolished Fairfax Plaza strip mall (dashed lines). Since Mosaic opened, the Metrorail station’s park and ride and several other properties were redeveloped with mixed-use apartments. We expect the mile-long walking corridor between Mosaic and the station to be enhanced by the county’s plans for further redevelopment and enhanced connectivity. Click image to view larger size.
Image by June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones.

In 2006 Edens purchased the failing multiplex and some adjacent properties in the center of Merrifield, Virginia’s 1.3-square-mile commercial district.[7] With over 100,000 square feet of office space bordered by major highways and commuter rail transit, the area had a largely degraded public realm yet was in an affluent county eager to provide incentives for redevelopment. Fairfax County had a new comprehensive revitalization plan and, eventually, a willingness to back the project with tax increment financing (TIF).[8] Mosaic was something of a test case on the use of public-private partnerships for the 60-times-larger retrofit of nearby Tysons Corner. And it was an opportunity to deliver something stylistically distinct from the neotraditional look of the numerous new town centers popping up around Washington, D.C.

The Mosaic District
Figure 5. At the outset, Edens had difficulty interesting residential developers. So they started by making a gathering place, Strawberry Park between the theater and the Target building. By insisting on managing those buildings’ ground-floor retail and parking (thereby reducing risk for the office and residential developers), Mosaic was then able to build out the project with the small park as its heart.
Photo by Phillip Jones, 2018.

Bill Caldwell, managing director and lead urban designer on the project, said, “Why design 19th-century brick facades if they’re going to be poorly detailed with cheap, thin panels? We have to use contemporary building techniques and materials so we wanted to spend our money on what really matters: the ground and the first 20 feet up.”[9] In search of a fun and distinctive creative identity, Edens sprinkled references to the Beatles and the Grateful Dead into the street names and deliberately hired non-D.C.-based design firms. They challenged them to ensure that the well-detailed storefronts and small businesses were not dominated by all the big boxes (a discount department store, speculative offices, cinemas, and parking decks).[10]

Retail and parking diagram
Figure 6. Similar to the way that grocery stores try to encourage a “destination shopper” to become an “impulse buyer” by placing the milk at the rear of the store, Mosaic’s commercial buildings place large-floor plate uses (cinemas, office, and large retailers) above ground-level boutique retail and restaurants. The Target building is lined with small shops at ground level on its two walkable street frontages, has two levels of parking above, and a Target discount department store at the top, serviced by highly visible escalators at the prime corner.
Image by June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones.

The individually designed storefronts add great visual interest and walkability to the already highly walkable street network and well-sized blocks. Edens’ choice to maintain private ownership of the streets allows flexibility to close them for festivals and the weekly farmers market, privileging the pedestrian more than cars.[11] The grid establishes much-needed connectivity to the area and will be extended in Phase 2 through the redevelopment of the neighboring strip mall.

Ground-floor retail
Figure 7. Unlike most suburban retail frontages that are designed as signs to be read at 50 miles per hour, storefronts and streetscaping at Mosaic provide pedestrian-oriented texture and details. Strolling and engagement are invited through varied fine-grain storefronts, sidewalk signboards, street trees. and plantings with uplighting. Varied seating is everywhere—even at Target—where it encourages people watching and chance conversations.
Photo by Phillip Jones, 2018.
Figure 8. Design matters! The redevelopment at the Dunn Loring Metrorail Station shown here has urban apartments fronting walkable streets with ground-level retail in parking decks. Yet, despite being further from transit, Mosaic commands a 20 percent rent premium. Most likely this is due to its more attractive invitations to residents and visitors to linger in streetside seating or attend the many programmed activities.
Photo by Ellen Dunham-Jones, 2018.

However, even with this connectivity and the mile walk to the Dunn Loring Metro station, how much is Mosaic reducing automobile dependency? For now, the project’s walkability is highly internalized, presenting mostly blank walls at the perimeter frontage to the bounding highways. This will likely change if the county realizes its ambitions to convert U.S. Highway 29/Lee Highway into a tree-lined boulevard.[12] In the meantime, Mosaic’s mix of uses allows a reduction in car trips—including for the residents of the new apartments that have popped up between Mosaic and the station. Biking is popular and Mosaic provides shuttle service and recently received approval for the state’s first self-driving shuttle.[13] But, at present, because Mosaic is providing the only programmed communal urban gathering space for miles around, it is largely functioning as drive-to walkability for residents of nearby communities. To accommodate them conveniently, Mosaic has ample parking in garages at its edges, located to ease visitors’ access while keeping walk distances to the theater and restaurants within a 17-minute “seat-to-seat” window.

Crossing the street

Figure 9. Tall ground floors in parking garages are designed to be infilled with more shops if parking demand diminishes over time. The open but covered parking in this case provides convenient access to the grocery store across the street and feels much safer than an enclosed, low-ceiling parking garage.
Photo by Phillip Jones, 2018.

The many activities programmed in the park may not cure loneliness, but they enable people to choose to be social around other people instead of online. McLean knows she’s providing this, but points out, “the biggest challenge is inspiring conversation.”[14] Toward that end, she partnered with a local artists association on a pop-up art gallery and art performances, and integrated murals and art display cases into Mosaic’s streetscapes. Visitor statistics show that Edens’s attention to placemaking creates a destination that many people want to experience.[15]

Strawberry Park
Figure 10. The park’s most innovative feature was an afterthought. “Lucy” is a 22- by 38-foot LED screen attached to the side of the movie theater. Whether used to lead yoga classes, show movies or sports, or broadcast the local Boy Scout troop’s awards ceremony, “Lucy” is used in programming free daily events at different times of day to bring people out of their private worlds and into a communal space.
Photo by Neil Arnold.

Caldwell urges every community and every developer to start by creating a gathering place, no matter how small. It might just be twinkle lights over picnic tables between two small businesses. If designed well, it can be the spark. This is where he feels retail developers really excel. He also emphasizes that communities must work with developers to do what they can afford. Mixed-use neighborhoods are inherently complex and the cost of place management, security, and operations are significant. Regardless, as of this writing the Mosaic District is both an environmental and a fiscal success by many measures.[16]

Social success is harder to measure than the fiscal capital performance. Might the Beatles’s Eleanor Rigby have overcome her loneliness at Mosaic? Can a development that is privately owned and managed evolve into an authentic community? Or are visitors, employees, and residents simply consuming a carefully curated experience? Jane Jacobs might appreciate the mixing of big and small uses, day and night activities, residents and workers, while Ray Oldenburg might find the programming too scripted for casual interactions. Nevertheless, we are impressed by Edens’s charting of a new path—under McLean’s conscious leadership—away from a history of building grocery-anchored suburban strip malls.

End Notes

[1] The initial build-out for the Silver LEED-ND certified project called for 500,000 square feet of retail and restaurants, 73,000 square feet of office, a 148-key hotel, and 1,000 residences. Principal design firms involved include RTKL, Nelsen Partners, House & Robertson, Mulvanny G2, Fred Dagdagan, and Law Kingdon.

[2] RE Insight podcast interview of Jodie McLean by Scott Morey,

[3] Interview of Jodie McLean by Ellen Dunham-Jones, 29 October 2018, at the Mosaic District, Merrifield, VA.

[4] RE Insight podcast.

[5] Such “experiential retail” deemphasizes the cash register but builds brand awareness and customer satisfaction. It is increasingly recognized as the primary role for physical stores in collaboration with ecommerce. One of many possible references is Christina Binkley, “The Man Who Could Save Retail,” The Wall Street Journal, 17 September 2018.

[6] See Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place (1991) and Celebrating the Third Place (2000).

[7] At the time of purchase, Edens had two other partners, which it subsequently bought out.

[8] Barbara Byron, then director of Fairfax County’s Office of Revitalization, credits the task force that started visioning exercises with stakeholders in 1998 with “setting the stage for everything you see today.” See David R. Millard, “The Mosaic District: Urban Village Grows from Suburban Wasteland,” Development Magazine, Fall 2013.

[9] Telephone interview of Bill Caldwell by Ellen Dunham-Jones, 31 May 2016.

[10] Telephone interview of Tom Kiler, former VP of Development at Edens, by Ellen Dunham-Jones, 18 May 2016.

[11] Bill Caldwell helped write the design guidelines for the redevelopment of Tysons Corner but failed to convince the county to take ownership of the streets away from the state. He said, “It’s resulted in property owners creating individual fiefdoms that are inadequately stitched together by a truly walkable public realm. We wanted much more control of that at Mosaic. We put in stop signs to slow traffic that VDOT would not have allowed on public streets.” Interview of Bill Caldwell by Ellen Dunham-Jones, 29 October 2018, at the Mosaic District, Merrifield, VA.

[12] Plans include continuous “Main Street” frontage along Eskridge Road, converting Gallows Road into a boulevard and connecting the area’s perimeter streets into a continuous ring road. Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan, 2017 Edition The Merrifield Suburban Center, Amended through 9-24-2019, n.d.:

[13] Brian Trompeter, “Supervisors OK Autonomous-vehicle Pilot program in Merrifield,” Inside NOVA, 30 June 2019.

[14] Jodie McLean interview, 2018.

[15] When social distancing requirements in 2020 severely limited gatherings, management at the Mosaic got creative, returned to the site’s roots, and started a drive-in movie series on the roof of one of the parking garages.

[16] Walkability and transit access contributed to Mosaic receiving silver certification in LEED for Neighborhood Development, a green ratings system. Construction of underground vaults with sand filters to restore the site’s stormwater holding capacity to predevelopment standards garnered points. One is under the one-acre Strawberry Park. As the community space for both informal hanging out and actively programmed activities, it also helps meet LEED-ND’s “human experience” criteria.” Other sustainability features include a green roof on the theater, the purchase of energy from renewable sources for all Edens-owned streets and spaces, ample street trees, and tenant sustainability guidelines. In terms of fiscal performance, the fourth-floor Target store is one of the best performing in the region. The residential units have wait lists, and the county’s workforce housing affordability requirements are being met. And as of 2019 Mosaic was ahead of schedule in paying back the $66 million TIF financing it received from the county.



June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-JonesJune Williamson is professor at the City College of New York’s Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture. She is the acclaimed author of Designing Suburban Futures: New Models from Build a Better Burb (Island Press, 2013).

Ellen Dunham-Jones is professor of architecture and directs the urban design degree at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She was voted one of the world’s 100 most influential urbanists by Planetizen and hosts the Redesigning Cities podcast.

The authors’ first book, Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs (Wiley), was deemed “the Bible of the retrofitting movement” in the Chicago Tribune. It was featured in The New York Times, CBS Evening News, Urban Land, and Architectural Record, and received the 2009 PROSE award for architecture and urban planning.

Header photo by Phillip Jones, 2014.

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