Fairfax Suburbanista

Making growth work in Fairfax

Great, but what about the big picture?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on March 7, 2013

Northern Virginia transportation officials are rightly concerned that new transportation funds bring new expectations from residents for traffic relief. Last week, Post columnist Robert McCartney reflected on his interviews with transportation directors in Fairfax, Arlington, and Prince William Counties on the new regional funds for transportation improvements (read the full article here): “Their comments surprised me. I was expecting an outpouring of gratitude and relief that after 27 years of paralysis, the Virginia legislature had finally approved the money they desperately needed to fund the projects they’ve dreamed of doing. Instead, some of these powerful but unheralded public servants seemed anxious about their newfound riches. If they don’t deliver visible improvements in commuting and travel time, they feared, then voters would erupt over getting nothing in return for the increased taxes and fees.”

McCartney’s column today, though, celebrates a new road project that would have minimal value in reducing traffic congestion. The Manassas Battlefield Bypass has long been pushed in conjunction with the Bi-County Parkway. An ostensible purpose of the bypass is to relieve traffic pressures through the historic battlefield. VDOT has promised to close Route 29 through the battlefield once the bypass is built. McCartney lauds the handshake arrangement that VDOT has made with the park superintendent to close 29 once the bypass and Bi-County Parkway has been built. He implies that opponents are narrowly focused on their property interests and are simply standing in the way of progress.

The bypass is part of a much larger North-South Corridor project that includes the Bi-County Parkway and new road segments extending south to I-95 and north to Leesburg. The North-South Corridor will cost more than $1 billion and doesn’t address the traffic issues afflicting Prince William and Loudoun, which are east-west and not north-south.It would also divert the new regional funds from much more pressing traffic and transit fixes in Fairfax and the inner suburbs.

Preserving the battlefield’s historic character and making it more accessible for visitors is important. It is great that the Battlefield superintendent and VDOT are negotiating a compromise (although it would be better if VDOT actually made the pledge in a binding form). But what happened to the paramount concern with traffic relief that McCartney seemed to hear so loud and clear last week?

Advertisements

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Media Groupthink

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on March 3, 2013

The shrill chorus of pro-highway voices reached a crescendo today with the Washington Post’s editorial calling out the Northern Virginia delegates who voted against the state’s transportation bill. This week’s Fairfax Times also contained an editorial lauding the McDonnell Administration for striking a deal, and castigating opponents of the bill for “creat[ing] roadblocks and [fall]ing on political swords.”

The Northern Virginia media, and in particular the Post, are determined to punish legislators who were not willing to cut a blank check for the Commonwealth Transportation Board. The transportation bill raises taxes for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads residents to pay for transportation improvements that the state should be paying for already. The state is instead squandering the money on new highway projects such as Route 460, the Outer Beltway in Loudoun and Prince William and the Charlottesville western bypass.

The fundamental problems with the bill are aptly explained by Senator Chap Petersen, and in Stewart Schwartz’s blog piece in Greater Greater Washington. As Petersen said, “Money alone will not solve this issue.” The Commonwealth Transportation Board and VDOT are focused on “megaprojects” that provide fat contracts for construction companies and open up new land for development. The McDonnell Administration is moving up the $1.2 billion Outer Beltway project to the first project in line in Northern Virginia to receive the new funds. Northern Virginia does not need new highways. Improvements on existing roads to relieve bottlenecks are a much higher priority, as county transportation directors explained in Robert McCartney’s recent Post article.

Many legislators voted for the bill believing that it was the best deal they could get under the political realities of Virginia both now and in the foreseeable future. Virginia is still a largely rural state. The rural districts are powerfully represented in the legislature and on the Commonwealth Transportation Board. Transportation funds have traditionally been allocated liberally throughout the state, with a priority on new highway construction.

The bill allows Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to raise their own transportation money – which business and political leaders in the regions have been trying to do for well over a decade. It provides a new funding source for transit – albeit from raiding the general fund. In many legislators’ minds, it was too good to pass up.

Reasonable minds may disagree. But to the editorial board of the Post, there is only one right answer. They choose not to listen to, and are determined to punish, the reasonable voices of caution and skepticism who are all too aware of the state’s poor track record of using transportation funds to increase transportation choices and reduce traffic congestion. It is sad to see such narrow-mindedness and vindictiveness in the editorial board of our paper of record.

Posted in Transportation, VDOT | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Technical Assistance Award is Great Step Forward

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on December 14, 2012

Fairfax City has been selected as one of twenty-two communities nationwide to receive a free technical assistance workshop from Smart Growth America.  The workshop, to take place in early 2013, will focus on successful development strategies for both the public and private sector that save money, increase revenues, and promote long-term stability. The workshop will include an examination of best practices and a hands-on evaluation of issues facing the City of Fairfax. 

The workshop could hardly come at a better time. The city has new leadership that is taking a more far-sighted approach to future growth. Several new development proposals have been submitted or are in the works. The city is facing a structural deficit and recognizes the need for increased revenue to fund capital improvements and its first-rate public services. The city is also preparing a thorough update of its comprehensive plan. Smart Growth America has an excellent roster of consultants, and will be able to help the city develop a good strategy for addressing future growth. Stay tuned for more information on the workshop.

For more information on the awardees, visit http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/2012/11/21/announcing-the-recipients-of-smart-growth-americas-2013-free-technical-assistance/.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Layton Hall initial plan looks good, but needs to preserve some affordable units

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on September 22, 2012

At the City Council’s September 18th meeting, the owner of Layton Hall Apartments presented plans to redevelop Layton Hall Apartments as a more compact and pedestrian-friendly community. However, the plans would not preserve any units at current rates, which would drive current residents out of the apartments and probably out of the city.

JCE proposes to replace the current 110 garden-style apartment units with 357 units on seven buildings, four of which would be set close to Layton Hall Drive. All parking would be underneath or behind the residential units. The more compact, street-oriented building design would connect the apartments more organically with nearby Courthouse Plaza and the city’s downtown area.

 The proposal could move very quickly – JCE intends to file its application within the next few weeks. More information about the proposed project can be found at http://fairfax.granicus.com/MetaViewer.php?view_id=2&event_id=81&meta_id=30606

The Mayor and several Council members voiced concerns about the scale and density of the proposal. Given the right design, though, this scale and density could be a big plus for the city.

The rents for the units would range from $1,250 to $1,900 a month – a steep increase from current monthly rents ($1,150 -$1,450). Adding market-rate studio and one-bedroom apartments could help the city attract more young professionals – which would add to the city’s diversity, and could bring more activity to the downtown area. That’s a good thing.

At the same time, the city needs to be more proactive in trying to preserve moderately affordable housing as part of the redevelopment. If the city does not make provisions for preserving some below-market rate housing as it redevelops Layton Hall and other aging apartment stock, it will have several negative effects. The city will become a less diverse place, and residents will likely move further out to the fringes of the region, where housing costs are cheaper.

The city and surrounding region have a large service-based economy, thousands of teachers and administrative staff from George Mason University and public and private schools, in addition to a lot of public sector employees. We need to build housing that is affordable to these people, too.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Whether it’s DC or Fairfax, everyone should be safe

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on December 11, 2009

A naive person would think that being able to cross a street safely should be a basic right. But even in the most walkable city in the region, it can be a challenge. As Ashley Halsey III reports in today’s Post, the District has finally done something to make new York Avenue Northeast easier and safer to cross without getting stuck in the middle. They’ve retimed the crossing cycle at Bladensburg Road to 30 seconds, which is the amount of time it takes to cross the eight-lane intersection at an average walking pace. During the first day of the new cycle, the District experienced the traffic engineer’s worst nightmare. As Halsey reports, “Wednesday’s evening rush backed up from the intersection to Florida Avenue, 1.8 miles.” The District Department of Transportation is working to adjust the timing while giving pedestrians enough time to safely cross the entire intersection.

Would you feel safe crossing this street, or want to buy your holiday presents here?

When even the region’s core city has to contend with irate motorists to protect the safety of its citizens, it’s a reminder of how far the whole region has to go. In Fairfax City, we’ve taken some forward steps. At Fairfax Boulevard and Walnut Drive, for example, the city has created a dedicated “Walk” cycle with red at all intersections to prevent conflicts between pedestrians and turning vehicles. The city has also re-timed signals at its T-intersection on Chain Bridge Road and Judicial Drive to give pedestrians a dedicated crossing time. But there’s a lot more to be done.

In downtown Fairfax, the Old Lee/North Street intersection must handle huge volumes of east-west traffic while enabling pedestrians to safely cross. The intersection is the center of downtown activity. Main Street Marketplace, the library, and an office complex are on three corners; the future George Mason Square retail redevelopment is on the fourth. Currently the city allots 15 seconds for crossing the intersection. That is a brisk walking pace. It is a better timed signal than it was before the two-way reconfiguration of North and Main Streets, but the city should add at least five seconds to the cycle, allow a diagonal crossing, and reduce the wide curb radius.

Whether it is Fairfax or Washington DC — if cities want to attract people to live and spend their money, they need to make their streets inviting and safe for people on foot.

Posted in Transportation, Walking | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Changes are afoot — let’s speed them up!

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on December 7, 2009

Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria has been redesigned to make bicycling and walking safe and pleasant.

Check out Scott Polikov’s excellent article in citiwire.net for an encouraging view of the changes afoot in state transportation departments. Last week the Texas became the first state to adopt the The Institute for Transportation Engineers’ and Congress for the New Urbanism’s Manual for Walkable Urban Thoroughfares as an accepted set of guidelines for street design. Polikov, a Fort Worth-based planner, also commends the Virginia Department of Transportation for its policy to encourage interconnected streets.

Last Tuesday, Charlotte,  North Carolina received a National Award for Smart Growth Achievement for its urban street design guidelines, which it adopted five years ago and has already implemented on 20 streets and at 10 intersections.

Are the dominoes falling, as Polikov suggests? Maybe, but they’re heavy dominoes with a bit of glue underneath each one. Adopting the guidelines is just the first step; Texas now  has to figure out how to incorporate them in the Department of Transportation’s various manuals and programs. State DOTs have layers upon layers of staff expertise and established processes that support more conventional auto-oriented practices.

The  Virginia Department of Transportation is changing, but the changes are not as fast as the pace of change in Fairfax communities. Tysons Corner is  poised to get four rail stations by 2013. Fairfax will need to make Routes 7 and 123 into more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly boulevards to take advantage of transit and attract businesses along these streets. But VDOT and the Metro Washington Airports Authority’s plans for 7 and 123 have barebones pedestrian accommodations and discourage at-grade crossings for pedestrians. Nor do they have bike lanes.

Following the example  of Texas and adopting the Walkable Urban Thoroughfare guidelines would be a great step for VDOT. So would a program of trainings in “complete street” design practices for VDOT and FCDOT engineers. VDOT and FCDOT could start by focusing trainings for staff working on projects in Fairfax County designated revitalization areas, such as the Richmond Highway Corridor.

Posted in Transportation, Uncategorized, VDOT, Walking | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Get involved in downtown redevelopment — December 8

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on December 3, 2009

Next Tuesday Fairfax City Councilmembers will be discussing the future of George Mason Square in Old Town. George Mason Square is the parcel between Old Lee Highway and University Drive along North Street. The city now owns all this land and is planning a long-overdue facelift.

The work session will be Monday at 5:30 at City Hall. The City Council is not taking public comments at this point. But if you go to the work session you’ll learn what they are considering and have a better opportunity to shape the final plan.

Can you imagine how nice it would be if this mish-mash of parking lots became a central meeting area with benches, bike racks and attractive stores fronting Old Lee and North?

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Getting to the parking lot

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on November 23, 2009

In-street crosswalk sign at Fair City Mall

Even people who drive for every trip have to cross the street. The motorists cum pedestrians at Fair City Mall now have a safer route to and from the parking lot thanks to the in-street crosswalk signs installed on the mall’s main internal street.

Weekend foot and car traffic is heavy on this street, and getting heavier as the mall brings in popular new stores such as Best Buy. In-street crosswalk signs are very effective in getting motorists to follow the law and yield to pedestrians at unsignalized crosswalks on neighborhood and other smaller streets. The city and the mall made a good move.

This will hopefully lead to the signs being installed at key crosswalks on the city’s public streets. The city has many trail crossings that get a lot of pedestrian and bicycle traffic. The crosswalk at Sager Avenue near Providence Square Condominiums is one example. These would be good candidates for in-street signs.

Posted in Walking | Tagged: , | 6 Comments »

Transportation money available — where’s Fairfax?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on November 18, 2009

Fairfax is the largest school system in Virginia and maintains one of the largest school bus fleets in the country. But Fairfax has claimed very little available federal money to encourage safer walking and bicyling routes to school. Since 2005 Virginia has received $13 million in federal funds for its Safe Routes to School Program. Fairfax has received less than 1 percent of these funds. As today’s Washington Post reports, leaders are showing interest in encouraging more walking and bicyling to school. An excellent post by FABB puts an even finer edge on this issue. There is money on the table for transportation — Fairfax should be claiming it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The best exercise: right around the corner (if you can walk there)

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on November 17, 2009

Just what the Doctor ordered

Living near a walking trail is one of the best things you can do for your health. That’s the gist of Dr. Daphne Miller’s article in today’s Post, “Take a hike and call me in the morning.” Miller, a family physician and clinical professor at the University of California in San Francisco, begins the article with testimony from a patient that says everything about the importance of a good walking environment:

“I have a StairMaster right in my own basement, but honestly it’s been gathering dust there for years and making me feel guilty. . . . It wasn’t until I started walking the three-mile trail in the park near my house that I got serious about exercising.”

If more of us lived within walking distance of a trail, we’d be healthier and happier. Expanding the trail network is a major focus in several regions, as the article details. Public health advocates, and health philanthropies such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Mary Black Foundation, have really stepped up — so to speak — to build broad, effective partnerships for expanding access to trails and encouraging active transportation.

Trails are also good suburban politics. It’s hard to be against them. Fairfax City, where I live, has a strong and growing trail network. The city is very effective in getting trail easements to fill gaps in the network. Building the Cross-County Trail was a major “legacy” of Gerry Connolly’s reign as the Chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

But in a 400 square-mile county, not everyone will be able to live within walking distance of a trail. And when you need to go to the grocery store, dry cleaners, or doctor, a trail will probably not get you there. Commercial development is and will be concentrated along the county’s major roads.

Think of all the calories you'd burn off from that latte if Fairfax City had zoned this Starbucks to be a walkable destination, instead of a drive-through.

Adapting our streets and buildings to encourage more walking and bicycling is a tougher political fight than building a trail. To create walkable, bicycle-friendly environments in the suburbs, communities have to fight against rules and practices embedded in everything from zoning codes to road design standards. But this is just as important as, if not more important than, building trails. The places where we need to go — that doctor, grocery store, where we work, etc. — should be accessible on foot. That way, we are engineering physical activity into our daily lives. It takes Dr. Miller’s approach to trails one step further. It just becomes part of what we do.

In McLean, one of Fairfax’s older area with a solid pedestrian-oriented core, citizens have created a great blueprint for making that area more walkable. The recommendations include filling gaps in the sidewalk network — especially in key places such as near crosswalks — tightening curb radii, and setting and enforcing a speed limit of 25 mph in the downtown area. Most important, the blueprint focuses on implementing these recommendations and the district supervisor, John Foust, has pledged that they will be implemented. The blueprint also notes that fewer than 5 percent of current bicycle trips are for commuting to and from work or for going to school. But if the recommendations are implemented, the use of a bicycle for work, school, and errand trips should greatly increase.

Kudos to our trail system, and let’s keep working to expand it. But we’ll all be even healthier and happier if we can just walk or bicycle to the coffeeshop or grocery store.

Posted in Bicycling, Transportation, Walking | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »