South Alex rebuilds after ‘devastating’ fire

South Alex rebuilds after  ‘devastating’ fire
A construction crew member walks across the job site of multi-use building complex South Alex in Fairfax County. South Alex is located at the intersection of Route 1 and Kings Highway. (Photo/Lindsey Sullivan)

By Lindsey Sullivan |

A massive, four-alarm structure fire in February created a column of smoke over Alexandria that was visible from miles away. Just months later, the developers behind the Fairfax County multi-use development have begun to rebuild.

The project development, known as South Alex, is a two-building, five-story, multi-use apartment complex located about a mile south of the beltway that was planned to open June 2021.

At the time of the fire, the project had been under construction since December 2018. Most of the exterior parts of the site were complete, according to Aisha Hill, senior director of development for Combined Properties.

“It was devastating for sure,” Hill said. “It has definitely been a Herculean coordination effort to get through something like that.”

This rebuilding effort included the Combined Properties team at South Alex, general contractor CBG Building Company, Fairfax County, other consultants and Aldi — the grocer planned to be in the South Alex complex, Hill said.

An accident involving a carelessly discarded cigarette caused the fire back in February, according to Fairfax County Fire official reports. Because the building was under construction, there was no sprinkler system in place. Windy conditions exacerbated the problem and made extinguishing the fire difficult, according to a fire department press release.

The subcontractor at CBG who discarded the cigarette is no longer working on the site and no charges were pressed, Hill said. Safety continues to be the highest priority for Combined Properties and CBG as rebuilding is underway.

CBG declined to comment on the progress of construction at South Alex.

An excavator and crane work to rebuild South Alex after a large fire destroyed the majority of the project. The readjusted plans are set to deliver the project in late 2022 or early 2023. (Photo/Lindsey Sullivan)

Combined Properties has been in the Lee District of Fairfax County for decades and their first priority after the fire was to ensure the safety of the surrounding community, Hill said.

Structural engineers were brought onto the site immediately to assess the remainders of the building. A demolition team was brought in shortly after that to tear down structures deemed unstable, Hill said.

In addition to the $48 million loss at South Alex, the fire damaged an additional five apartment buildings, 14 townhouses and four single-family homes surrounding the project, as well as 28 vehicles, according to a report from Fairfax county fire officials. Two firefighters and one resident suffered minor injuries.

While the vast majority of the materials on-site were lost, Hill said some of the materials were produced off-site, and hadn’t been delivered to the location of the fire before it occurred. Additionally, some remaining structures were deemed sound enough to be salvaged and used again in the rebuilding process.

The combined team broke ground on the project for a second time in June, with plans to finish in late 2022 or early 2023, Hill said. With the demolition process complete, the team is now working on foundations and columns for the retail podium, installing plumbing and preparing for the prefabricated garage to arrive on-site.

Hill added that rebuilding South Alex after the loss wouldn’t have been possible without Fairfax County’s help, including chairman and former county supervisor Jeffrey McKay.

“The county was extremely proactive about making a connection with us and making sure that we understood that they were in our corner to help us in any way they could to get the rebuilding effort started and moving forward as quickly as we could,” Hill said.

The County Supervisor’s office was not available to comment by press time.

“The day of the fire, we knew that we were going to rebuild,” Hill said. “I, of course, at the time, couldn’t comprehend what that would look like or what that would take. But there is just an amazing team of people, both inside and outside of Combined, that are committed to this project and this neighborhood.”