Fairfax Suburbanista

Making growth work in Fairfax

Archive for June, 2009

A more livable central Fairfax

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on June 30, 2009

Dirt is getting cleared big-time for the mixed-use Ridgewood project in Springfield. Ridgewood will include affordable homes — a big plus especially in a location within walking and bicycling distance to Fairfax County Government Center — stores, parks and office space, and all parking will be structured and embedded inside the site. Residents will be able to walk to a lot of amenities including the nearby Wegman’s and Fairfax Corner. The project will also extend Government Center Parkway, adding another important link in the road network.

All good. Kudos to developer KSI, Springfield District civic leaders, Planning Commissioner Peter Murphy and former Supervisor Elaine McConnell for getting the project through. The land use in this area is getting better. Now, will our obscenely auto-oriented roads in this area follow suit?

The central Fairfax/Government Center area is studded with overly wide roads that are difficult and unpleasant to cross by foot or bicycle on. Route 29 is unbikeable unless you are extremely brave and willing to risk right hooks from motorists who barely slow down into their turns. Government Center Parkway and Monument Drive are ridiculously wide, with far more capacity than needed for the volume of cars they handle.  In classic Tysons-Cornerish land use planning, the wildly popular Wegmans Supermarket lacks dedicated pedestrian access; even residents of the nearby condos on Ridge Top Road and Monument have no direct pedestrian or bicycle access.

Two large vacant retail spaces suggest future redevelopment is not far off at Jermantown Plaza and the nearby shopping center once anchored by Home Expo

Two large vacant retail spaces suggest future redevelopment is not far off at Jermantown Plaza and the nearby shopping center once anchored by Home Expo

Currently the whole is less than the sum of its parts, but one hopes that with more creative land use such as exemplified by Ridgewood the impetus will grow for multi-modal improvements on Route 29, Waples Mill Road and other current car sewers. Along with VDOT, another big factor here will be land use decisions made just over the border in Fairfax City. Just two (admittedly long super-suburban) blocks from Ridgewood are two underperforming Fairfax City shopping centers along with a trailer park that has long been eyed for redevelopment. Part of this area — the Jermantown Shopping Center may become part of the city’s Fairfax Boulevard overlay district. So there is a lot that could happen over the next decade to build on the momentum for a more livable central Fairfax. But we have to start taming those roads.

Posted in Central Fairfax, Fairfax City, VDOT | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Paint on pavement

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on June 18, 2009

GMU bike lane toward University Kudos to George Mason University for striping bicycle lanes on both their access roads, leading to University Drive (pictured here) and to Braddock Road.  A 4 foot bicycle lane is also striped on University coming from the GMU Child Development Center, and will eventually extend to George Mason Boulevard. So parents, hook up that bike trailer! Tomorrow Fairfax City will open George Mason Boulevard directly across the University Drive entrance. Although George Mason Boulevard has 14′ travel lanes, it does not include bike lanes (a sidepath on one side is the bicycle accommodation). A missed opportunity.

creative bike parking Reston Town Center A well designed on-street bicycle parking facility at Reston Town Center also shows how a little planning can go a long way. This installation of 8-10 bike racks takes up a single car parking space on Democracy Boulevard near the Pavilion/Ice Skating Rink. Simple, elegant and effective. Even on a rainy day it’s well used.

Posted in Bicycling, Fairfax City | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Let’s get over the hump

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on June 16, 2009

Today’s Washington Post reports the latest brouhaha in a Montgomery County neighborhood over the “vexing issue” of speed humps. But speed humps are not the best solution for people trying to reclaim neighborhood streets for their children and the community. Unfortunately, in too many instances — including in their neighborhood I live in — they are practically the only tool being used for traffic calming.

Speed humps have been installed on one of the major roads in our neighborhood, but they’ve done little to deter motorists from blowing through the stop sign at the hill bottom where we live or disregard pedestrians and bicyclists waiting at the marked crosswalk that joins the two ends of the Westmore/Warren Woods  path. Spot enforcement by Fairfax City police has done far more to alter motorists’ behavior.

Of course, enforcement is expensive, and with the budget crunch these spot checks may become less frequent. I’m all for engineering solutions. But speed humps are a poor tool for taking back the neighborhood. They are punitive, but they don’t really do anything positive for the neighborhood. What about squaring off the wide curb radii at neighborhood intersections like mine? How about installing in-street crosswalk signs at common crossing locations? Or using other tools, both engineering-wise and people-wise, that have been successful as shown by Atlanta-based PEDS and traffic calming guru David Engwicht?

Maybe speed humps will make some motorists think twice about going down that particular street — but probably not, since the alternative is probably a hellishly congested arterial or collector road. To their immense credit, the Virginia Department of Transportation is trying to make the road network more interconnected by discouraging further construction of cul-de-sacs. Will that bring more cars through some neighborhood streets? No doubt.  But cars and people can coexist, if the streets are designed well.

The most important tools, like narrower streets, wider sidewalks and bulb-outs, are not so easy to use in already established neighborhoods. Nor are they easy in building new neighborhoods, without special zoning and a lot more work on our Public Facilities Manual in Fairfax County. We’re still building subdivisions with cul-de-sacs — regulations haven’t gone into effect yet — and wide curb radii. So plenty more speed hump wars to come.

Posted in Neighborhoods, Walking | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Connecting Fairfax by bicycle

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on June 15, 2009

GMU - Vienna routesThe map shows two basic alternatives for bicycling between two of central Fairfax’s major destinations, George Mason University and the Vienna Metrorail station. Fairfax Boulevard is the yellow “spine” in the center, but only the most intrepid bicyclists would venture on this 6-lane curb cut-happy road. Currently the best options are either to follow Old Lee Highway (south of Fairfax Boulevard) or take Eaton Place, ride briefly on Fairfax Boulevard (sidewalk or road, pick your poison) and turn left on Plantation Parkway to ride through Mosby Woods to Fair Oaks Road. There is a cut-through trail connecting Mosby Woods with Fair Oaks that several resourceful bicyclists have found. Many thanks to Frank Linton for developing the map.

Both are decent routes, but would be strengthened by an improved system of signs and on-road bike lanes, especially on Old Lee Highway. The plan for access roads and on-road bike lanes in the Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan would make the connection easier.

Posted in Bicycling, Fairfax Boulevard, Transit | Leave a Comment »

Fairfax City bicycling

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on June 13, 2009

Let's get bike lanes on Old Lee

Let's get bike lanes on Old Lee

Shortly after I moved to Fairfax City 5 years ago I called the planning director to ask him whether bike racks were being required as part of the Old Town redevelopment. He responded that “we don’t want to encourage bicycling in downtown.” Bicycling on its narrow streets was seen as too dangerous. Instead the city planned to install a bike parking facility on the periphery — the “park once” philosophy applied, strangely and inappropriately, to bicyclists. (Neither the bike station nor racks have yet materialized.)

Prospects are better now. Several of the City Council members elected in 2008 are bicyclists, and the city has started to take small steps toward improving bicycling. Bike racks have been installed on  the city’s CUE buses, and City Councilmember David Meyer has convened city officials and advocates to develop a comprehensive bicycle initiative. On Saturday June 6  Meyer and fellow Councilmember Dan Drummond joined the Fairfax City chapter of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling for the group’s Tour de Fairfax. Mayor Robert Lederer and his daughters also participated in the first leg of the ride.

Fairfax City’s current bike network is oriented around its parks and focused on trails, which are extensive. The Fairfax City chapter of FABB is focused on improving access to key destinations in and near the city, such as Old Town stores, offices, supermarkets, George Mason University and the Vienna Metrorail station. FABB volunteers have identified several viable bicycle routes between GMU and the Vienna station, both along University Drive and  Old Lee Highway. As the above picture of Old Lee suggests, there is excess capacity on the road that could accommodate bicycle lanes.

With transportation improvements looming for Fairfax Boulevard, FABB wants to get ahead of the curve and ensure that on-road bike lanes and other bicycle and pedestrian measures are included in the reshaping of the city’s commercial center. Recently approved widenings of Jermantown Road, where two city schools are located along with a neighborhood park and the Gainesborough Court apartment complex, will make that street harder to cross and to navigate by bicycle. We don’t want the same thing to happen with Fairfax Boulevard.

Posted in Bicycling, Fairfax Boulevard, Fairfax City | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Lifestyle centers

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on June 10, 2009

Fairfax is big on the real estate product known in the industry as “lifestyle centers” and by some lay observers as “faux town centers.” Fairfax Corner near Government Center and the Fair Lakes area is a classic lifestyle center with a small “Main Street” with street-level retail establishments and a plaza area with a fountain. The Peterson Companies built and manages Fairfax Corner. Peterson has done a good job with the design and they have built condominiums on one end of this development pod, which is filled with high-end stores such as REI and “Great American Restaurant” chains such as Coastal Flats, and an office building on the other. They’ve also installed attractive bike racks, though they are sparse.  On any seasonable weekend day you will see a lot of families in the plaza and the stores are doing brisk business; at night the restaurants are full. It’s no wonder that county officials often point to Fairfax Corner as a success story and Fairfax City is looking to Fairfax Corner as a possible model for the redevelopment of Fairfax Boulevard.

And Fairfax Corner, in itself, is fine. The problem is in getting to Fairfax Corner. On both ends are obscenely wide roads built to accommodate far more traffic volume than they  receive, encouraging fast speeds and discouraging walking and bicycling. Although a supermarket is within walking distance for residents, the overly wide Government Center Parkway and vast parking lot discourages walking or bicycling there. Outdated parking regulations and road design standards are two of the reasons that Fairfax Corner and the surrounding residences and stores do not function well as a community — however well they may be doing right now economically.  (For more on parking regulations and subsidies see Ryan McGreal’s incisive review of Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking.) The mixture of uses is there, but the design is not.

This is pretty much the M.O. for lifestyle centers, though — they are a refinement of the mall, but as with malls the intention is “park once” (as opposed to keep your car parked in the garage — or don’t have a car to begin with). County government employees can reach Fairfax Corner’s lunch spots on foot thanks to a pleasant winding trail from the back of the Government Center connecting with Monument Drive. Reston Town Center, Fairfax’s mega-lifestyle center, has a denser mixture of uses and a more authentic streetscape, and in time will be connected to Metrorail. As for Fairfax Corner and the surrounding townhouses and condos along Random Hills Road — narrower streets and better trail connections could do a lot to encourage more walking and bicycling.

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

Schools

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on June 10, 2009

A standard opening line used by advocates for walkable and bicycle-friendly communities at community meetings is, “How many of you walked to school?” followed by “How many of your kids do?” I actually grew up in a community where very few of us walked to school, while my spouse customarily walked to school. That makes us representative of our X Generation. About half of all American kids in the late ’60s walked or bicycled to school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the percentage has been declining rapidly over the last 40 years.

Both of the past two neighborhoods we’ve lived in have had neighborhood schools close down within the past decade.  In Ormewood Park, a streetcar suburb near downtown Atlanta, it was Anne E. West Elementary School, a beautiful old school on a hill and right in the middle of a warren of small streets that we went past frequently on our walks. Here in Fairfax City our neighbors sent their kids to Westmore Elementary School, a much less prepossessing building built in the ’50s when the forest was being carved for the split-level “Buckinghams” of the Warren Woods neighborhood where we live. Westmore was closed six or seven years ago.

Demographics were the most obvious reason for both closures. Ormewood Park lost a lot of its school-age population and empty nesters and same-sex couples were the “early adopters” moving in in the ’80s and ’90s. Many families were coming back to Ormewood Park in the early 2000s.  Warren Woods has a large proportion of older residents whose kids have grown — although, again, many families with school-age kids are moving in.

But the schools were also closed for institutional reasons —  such as the cost savings and improved curricula that would allegedly come from consolidating schools and policies that discourage rehabilitating older schools. Across the country new schools are being built on vast lots with little or no pedestrian orientation. Many states have policies that prohibit rehabilitation of their older, often neighborhood-based schools if the costs cross a certain percentage of what it would cost to build a new school. The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Neighborhood Schools project is a great resource on this topic.

That said, I would have done the same thing as the Fairfax school administrators in closing Westmore,  investing in other existing physical plants and concentrating children in fewer schools. Fairfax has invested a huge amount of money in rehabilitating and expanding its schools. Providence, where our son goes to school, has beautiful day-lit classrooms, a great playground, and people are just clearly happy to be there. My elementary school was a dank 19th-century building with utility sinks in the halls, and I have few happy memories. (It has since been turned into condominiums.)

So there are very legitimate reasons that Daniel, our son, can’t walk to school. What’s less justifiable are the barriers between our home and school that make it difficult and dangerous for kids living closer to the school than we do to walk, and that make it hard for residents like us within bicycling distance to bike to school. In particular, Route 236, Fairfax Boulevard, and Jermantown Road. Between our home and the school are two arterial roads and a collector road (Jermantown). The city is widening Jermantown but adding no on-road bicycle accommodations.

Posted in Neighborhood schools, Walk to school | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Retrofitting suburbs

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on June 5, 2009

A great new book provides hope as well as urgency that our suburbs can and must be redesigned for a sustainable future. Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, by architecture scholars Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, looks at dozens of large-scale retrofit projects of malls and other suburban spaces. These include:

  • Cathedral City, California, where the land uses along the arterial highway have been rezoned and the street has begun to be tamed to allow for safer crossings
  • Mizner Park, Florida, a highly successful pedestrian- and public-space oriented redevelopment of a failed mall in Boca Raton
  • Mashpee Commons in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, another failed mall redevelopment with quirky small lots — also very economically successful

These are first-hand case studies loosely informed by a somewhat vague thesis that “incremental urbanism,” an organic view of how cities should evolve bit by bit — based on how successful cities have evolved in the past — must give way to a more fundamental centralized mode of change characterized by large-scale suburban face-lifts spearheaded by private-public partnerships. That is, Jane Jacobs gives way to Robert Moses-style suburban renewal. Almost all of the case studies are characterized by development partnerships where the redesigned spaces are turned over to either a private property manager or a private-public partnership such as a Business Improvement District. The serendipitous accretion of densely mixed, diverse uses and assets that Jane Jacobs saw in great cities was, as she pointed out, inapplicable to other kinds of settlements such as suburbs. And the authors seem to be arguing in their introduction that suburbs can’t and shouldn’t develop this way — for all our well justified fear of centrally planned monolithic settlements, suburban retrofits need to be large-scale with a “man behind the curtain” to work.

The main virtue of the book, though, is not the thesis but the richly detailed first-hand looks at these redesigned places and intelligent analyses. The case studies have a healthy dose of skepticism about, for example, the trend toward detached “lifestyle centers.” At the same time, the authors recognize that places like lifestyle centers, i.e. faux town centers, have become established real estate products and can, with some adaptation, become functional communities where people can live, do errands and enjoy themselves.

Posted in Malls, smart growth | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Malls in transition

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on June 4, 2009

Springfield Mall. Courtesy labelscar.com, "Caldor"

Springfield Mall. Courtesy labelscar.com, "Caldor"

Just a five-minute drive from our Fairfax City neighborhood are two shopping centers whose anchor tenants have either closed up shop or are distinctly underperforming. You can find places like this throughout Fairfax County.  Some shopping centers, such as in Bailey’s Crossroads, have reinvented themselves as new residents have moved in and established new businesses serving changing clienteles. But many others are in decay. Their anchor tenants have either left or are distinctly on the ropes, and their vast parking lots are half empty on the busiest days.

Yesterday I visited Fairfax’s poster child for mall-gone-bad, the Springfield Mall. Vornado, the mall’s owner, has been working with the county to rezone the mall so they can build more stores and a hotel. The plan, which is near approval, calls for filling most of the surface parking inside the mall area with a street grid and green space, and placing new buildings close to the street for better pedestrian access.

The mall is within walking distance of the Springfield-Franconia Metro station, but it is a very unpleasant walk along Frontier Drive, across two wide streets and along the auto-oriented station access road. Just across the street from the mall are attractive apartments built by Archstone, but I doubt many residents walk to the mall when they visit. Less attractive are the gated townhomes right behind the apartments, adding to the fortress feeling of the area. The first thing the motoring visitor to the Mall sees, the large Macy’s sign, has faded lettering that Macy’s is evidently in no hurry to refurbish and Vornado is evidently in no hurry to press them to do so.  Granted that Wednesday lunch hour, when I was there, is not the busiest time for any mall,  but I counted fewer than a dozen shoppers on my way from the second floor of Macy’s down to the ground floor food court. I would have probably seen three or four times that many patrons at Tysons Galleria during the same time of day. Commercial tenants include a Gymboree and Oriental Rugs.  At the entrance to the  food court a polo-shirted visor-capped worker tried to get me to try some chicken Teriyaki, and another toothpick sized sample was thrust toward me when I walked past the booth. Give them credit for trying to make it work.

I hope the rezoning increases patronage and foot traffic outside as well as inside the mall area, but this looks like another case of “lifestyle center” development with little organic relation to the assets around the mall — particularly the Metro station. We’ll see.

Posted in Malls, smart growth, Transit-oriented development | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

For transportation, priorities matter more than money

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on June 4, 2009

Will more money get us more of this?

Will more money get us more of this?

“More money” was the mantra during last night’s hearing on the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Six Year Improvement Program. The most extreme version of the mantra was voiced by highway lobbyist Bob Chase. “No state that allows its maintenance fund to drain its construction fund” can be successful, Chase said — this about a state that ranked last in the nation for investing in maintenance and repair of its road system between 1992 and 2001. Chase then reeled off a list of new highways and road widenings that he contended Virginia needed to remain economically competitive.

This is a person the Washington Post commonly cites as a “transportation expert.” Oh boy.

But he wasn’t the only one drinking the Kool-Aid. Three members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board that governs VDOT attended, as did VDOT Secretary  Pierce Homer and head engineers and division leaders, and dutifully listened to the parade of speakers. It was a short speakers’ list, fewer than 20, half of them elected leaders and the other half a mix of highway lobbyists, smart growth advocates and private citizens. “Give us more money” was the refrain of most of the elected leaders and everyone at VDOT. Doug Koelemay of the CTB suggested that $50 a year from each driver from a gas tax hike would get us well on the way toward a better transportation system. Secretary Homer observed that the coordinated transportation and land use improvements would only come if VDOT could get more money for its depleted urban and secondary roads program.

Fair enough — it’s been 23 years since Virginia last raised its gas tax and it’s well past time to jack it up. But what we would do with the $200 million or so of extra revenue per year? Build one or two more interchanges, or build sidewalks and bike lanes in places like Fairfax Boulevard and Route 1? The first will temporarily relieve traffic in a sprawling area — and essentially reward a locality for the inefficient land use that has created the traffic mess in the first place. The second will encourage and reward efforts to plan land use better so people have more convenient access to services and transit and can more easily walk, bicycle and use transit.

Kudos to VDOT’s leader and governing board for attending the hearing, listening politely to our testimony and providing some gentle corrections to one speaker (blush) who got his mode share numbers wrong. But until there is a clearer plan for how they would spend the money, this taxpayer is skeptical. It depends on how we develop. The transportation projects we prioritize will strongly influence patterns of development, so continuing a focus on interchanges, and interstate and arterial road widenings and more turning lanes will just spread the development further outward and make our roads more difficult to navigate on foot and by bicycle. It’s a vexing problem, and the current leadership at VDOT seems to be trying to sort out this dubious inheritance from the last sixty years of less-than-prudent long-term decisions. But we need a faster and more decisive shift in transportation investments if we really want to strike at the heart of our traffic problems.

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