Fairfax Suburbanista

Making growth work in Fairfax

Archive for August, 2009

Connecting University Mall to George Mason

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on August 28, 2009

Tweaks to the Roanoke River Road/Braddock Road intersection would improve bicycle and pedestrian access to University Mall

Tweaks to the Roanoke River Road/Braddock Road intersection would improve bicycle and pedestrian access to University Mall

The owners of University Mall near George Mason have filed applications to add retail space and modernize this lively but somewhat aging shopping center. One critical improvement would be to improve pedestrian and bicycle access across Braddock Road. George Mason University now bike lanes on its Braddock Road/Roanoke River Road entrance (as well as on the University Drive entrance), making it a lot easier to ride from campus onto the Braddock Road and Ox Road trails. But getting across Braddock Road to the shopping center by bicycle or on foot is a challenge. There is a lot of right-turning traffic and the bike lane veers right, right into the path of this traffic. Experienced bicyclists trying to cross will move from the bike lane to the through lane, but it is a tricky maneuver. In a recent summer late-morning ride I watched several right-turning vehicles approach the intersection and turn without braking, which is easy to do because of the wide curb radius. Bicyclists and pedestrians heading to University Mall have to cross Roanoke River Road to reach the striped crosswalk, and then cross again at the Patriot Square office complex. The crosswalk is excellent, with ample crossing time — kudos to VDOT — but getting there is tougher than it could be.

More and more students, administrators and faculty are living on or near the George Mason campus, and the university is also building a hotel for campus guests. With all the new permanent and guest housing, many more people in the George Mason community will be living car-free or car-light. The campus has a parking crunch and is working to encourage more pedestrian, bicycle and transit use. With a supermarket, cinema, bar and the redoubtable Brion’s Grill, University Mall is a big destination for Mason students and employees. Making it easier to walk and bicycle to and from the mall is a critical step. The rezoning application is a key opportunity to make it happen.

Other news for this area is more sobering. Fairfax County is studying a grade-separated interchange for the Braddock Road/Route 123 intersection. This extremely expensive project would isolate George Mason from University Mall, slice up the Ox Road bicycle trail, and encourage more traffic and inefficient development in southwest Fairfax and other parts of the area. Traffic at this intersection is certainly bad, but spending so much money to make the area even more car-dependent and less pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly is not the answer.


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Stop neighborhood silos

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on August 19, 2009

I should stop being surprised by the inefficiency of Fairfax’s streets. Fairfax Gateway on School Street and Route 123 is one of Fairfax City’s newest townhouse developments. It is a five-minute walk from George Mason University. Give the city and the developer credit for the handsome brick quasi-rowhomes that front School Street and can be entered from the sidewalk. School Street looks a lot better with this new addition, and the recent opening of a gourmet delicatessen¬† across the street may add some sorely needed foot traffic.

Gateway FairfaxGateway Fairfax2The main subdivision, however, is a standard pod. There is only one entrance, onto School Street. The end of the subdivision is a one-minute walk from the Metro 29K GMU-Pentagon bus stop. Is there a sidewalk connection? Of course not. A break in the forest, though, suggests that some residents and commuters might be bushwhacking. This could become a dirt footpath soon.

The new Kendall Square townhomes on Kingsbridge Street near the Vienna Metro station have the same M.O. Nice street-oriented design, but only one entrance and no connection to Blake Lane or Fairfax Boulevard.

VDOT’s new rules encouraging more connected streets may lead to fewer neighborhood silos for larger subdivisions. But these new roads are private roads that will be maintained by the developer. They will continue to be built unless local officials press for more connected streets as part of the rezoning process.

Traffic will flow much more efficiently with interconnected streets. Landscape architects have long since woken up from their love affair with curvilinear streets, and traffic engineers are finally coming to recognize that connected street grids are more efficient for getting from Point A to Point B than the once-hallowed “street hierarchy.” But the urge to build cul-de-sacs persists. Serious question: Do most people really (still) want these? Is the real estate industry still finding such a strong desire for streets to nowhere in their market research?

For all the money that has been spent on transportation in this area, it’s not getting easier to walk, bicycle or drive between Fairfax City and GMU. By closing University Drive to car traffic, the city has eliminated a connection that worked very well for driving, bicycling and walking. In recent rides along University Drive I’ve never seen anyone there. It’s become not only “car-free,” but pedestrian- and neighbor-free too. The newly opened George Mason Boulevard, running parallel to University Drive, is a thorn in the side of residents of the Crestmont subdivision, who are pressing for sound walls. The city has spent a lot of money on a project that is simply moving cars somewhere else, and not creating a better environment that will encourage more walking and bicycling.

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Big Government, Limited Choices

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on August 17, 2009

Fairfax City's "step-up" housing policy has encouraged gated communities like Chancery Square.

Fairfax City's "step-up" housing policy has encouraged gated communities like Chancery Square.

This past Saturday’s Wall Street Journal has a great article on the need to reduce the huge government subsidies for homeownership and encourage the production of homes and apartments for rent. If you want to expose “Big Government,” look no further than the array of subsidies, loan guarantee programs and local zoning laws that have been developed over the past 75 years to encourage homeownership, drive up the cost of housing and stimulate real estate speculation. As author Thomas Sugrue writes, “The story of how the dream [of homeownership] became a reality is not one of independence, self-sufficiency, and entrepreneurial pluck. It’s not the story of the inexorable march of the free market. . . . We are a nation of home-owners and home speculators because of Uncle Sam.”

Now that we’ve come down to earth, will housing and land use policies change to enable developers to produce homes that people can afford? Fairfax County has a starkly limited housing market consisting of wide swaths of “single-family” neighborhoods, a smattering of garden and high-rise apartments, and townhouses. Fewer than one in every five homes in the county is a rental unit. One reason that families pool their resources to buy or rent in “single-family” neighborhoods mainly is that they cannot find affordable, convenient places to rent.

Retooling our secondary mortgage institutions to help people find homes that they can really afford without “easy” credit, and without “driving to qualify” is mind-bogglingly complex. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is taking steps toward a more balanced housing policy that provides more funding for rental housing. But there are local forces at work too. Fairfax City’s housing policy explicitly encourages less affordable housing and the production of more expensive homes to match the high median income of its residents. Officials say that the city already has more rental units in proportion to overall housing stock than the county does, which is true, although the difference is small and becoming even smaller. But the real estate “market” — however artificial — is already working hard enough to stimulate over-expensive housing, even with the real estate bust, and zoning codes already discourage more rental housing.

Local housing policy should not add even more deterrents to building affordable homes. Instead, the county and city should be looking at increasing rental housing in commercial corridors like Fairfax Boulevard and Route 1 where people can more easily use transit and reduce their transportation costs — the second highest average household cost behind housing.

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Doing well by doing good

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on August 13, 2009

Getting citizens involved early produces better results. Image courtesy of urbanreviewstl.com

Getting citizens involved early produces better results. Image courtesy of urbanreviewstl.com

Both Fairfax and Prince George’s Counties are considering revamping their land use planning processes to make them more transparent and less cumbersome. At their June retreat, the Fairfax Board of Supervisors heard a staff presentation recommending an overhaul of its cumbersome, piecemeal Area Plans Review process. A Washington Post article today reports that Prince George’s is looking at streamlining its development review process, and making it simpler for laypeople to understand how to participate in the process.

If the jurisdictions follow through, this is good politics and even better planning. Land use politics is a minefield, and it can be extremely difficult for well meaning elected officials to make the best decisions for their communities when they face a clamor of angry citizens campaigning against change (think health care reform). Citizens are often left in the dark about development proposals until they have already well advanced. If you can’t steer change, you fear it.

Fairfax County has put a lot of effort into engaging citizens on specific development proposals and large-scale projects, such as the redesign of Tysons Corner. But the land use planning process tends to be highly technical and oriented toward landowners rather than citizens. Staff reports on rezonings are long on technical language and short on pictures. Unless you are one of the handful of citizens with the dedication to serve on a land use advisory committee and wade through the meetings and verbiage, your only opportunity to influence the development process is to speak at a public hearing — by which time the outcome has usually already been decided.

Fairfax’s Area Plans Review process exemplifies the problems. Landowners who want to develop their land in ways not currently permitted by zoning generally have to go through an Area Plans Review. Planning staff and citizen advisory committees review the proposals and make recommendations to the Planning Commission. If approved by the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors, the recommendations are incorporated in the comprehensive plan. Then the developer must apply to rezone the land.

But often the process doesn’t please anybody. The developer is unhappy because the process takes so long. Citizens are unhappy because the information they receive is packaged abstractly, relating to density, type of usage, and other things that don’t really represent to a layperson what the development will do. And the process is not well advertised, so that even the few citizens who do learn of rezoning proposals have little or no influence because the process by then is so far along.

So kudos to Fairfax for looking at a new approach. Here are some recommendations:

  • Provide visual representations of different development proposals and possibilities, so citizens can better choose and communicate what they like, and don’t like
  • Identify both “off-limits” areas where there will be little or no new development, and areas where new development will be concentrated — such as transit areas and major commercial corridors.
  • For priority development areas, get consensus on basic development principles and then provide incentives and a “fast track” for development proposals that meet these principles. Arlington has done this, so can Fairfax.

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Blaming the victim

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on August 11, 2009

Pedestrians and bicyclists face difficulties even on "downtown" streets such as Main Street in Fairfax City (pictured here) or Maple Avenue in Vienna.

Pedestrians and bicyclists face difficulties even on "downtown" streets such as Main Street in Fairfax City (pictured here) or Maple Avenue in Vienna.

Within the past few years, several bicyclists and pedestrians have been killed or injured in collisions with cars in downtown Vienna. The Town of Vienna is reacting by planning an educational campaign that tries to alter bicyclist and pedestrian behavior. The town is also considering enacting new restrictive laws for bicyclists. They’re blaming the victim, and avoiding the main reasons these accidents occur and many Fairfax residents feel unsafe riding or walking.

Situated right on the W & OD Trail, Maple Street attracts many bicyclists despite its bicycle and pedestrian-unfriendly design, with its many curb cuts and turning movements, wide curb radii, fast-moving traffic, and lack of bikeable shoulders or bike lanes. Many bicyclists, including me, choose to ride on the sidewalks. But bicycling on the sidewalk is more dangerous than bicycling on the street. Bicyclist-pedestrian collisions are more likely, and it is much harder for motorists to see bicyclists at intersections and curb cuts, which is where most bicyclist-motorist collisions occur.

Vienna’s “Eye to Eye” campaign stresses “defensive riding” with the message that bicyclists should make eye contact with motorists at intersections, curb cuts, and other areas where conflicts are possible. Vienna is also considering enacting a law that would require bicyclists riding on sidewalks to yield to motorists (current Virginia law requires motorists to yield to pedestrians at unsignalized crosswalks). The town is also considering requiring bicyclists to use audible signals at greater than 50 feet away when approaching a pedestrian on the W & OD Trail and on sidewalks.

Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling ably explains the shortsightedness of the town’s approach in a recent blog post. As FABB Chairman Bruce Wright says, “More motorist education and enforcement is needed to make cycling safer in the Town. A more bike-friendly Vienna is the best way to improve bicyclists’ safety in Vienna.” Right hooks are rarely the fault of bicyclists, and motorists should be responsible for seeing bicyclists and yielding right of way when making right turns onto stores and at intersections when the light is green. The larger problem is a lack of bicycle facilities on Maple Avenue, forcing bicyclists to use the sidewalk. Is the Town looking for a solution that accommodates all users, not just motorists?

The Vienna Town Council is holding a public hearing at 8 PM on August 17 to discuss proposed changes in the Town code relating to bicycling on the sidewalk. If you live or work in Vienna and care about this, come and speak out.

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Connecting the dots

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on August 7, 2009

Fairfax County’s fragmented street network is a big reason why getting from one place to another — by car, bike, on foot, or any other means — is so stressful. A case in point is the new Merrifield development (pictured above left). The shops, restaurants and apartments at Merrifield Town Center are within easy walking and bicycling distance of the homes and offices on and near Arlington Boulevard. They are also within easy walking and bicycling distance of the Dunn-Loring metro station. But both Dunn-Loring and Arlington Boulevard have inefficient street systems that funnel all traffic to major roads.

As part of the Merrifield rezoning, Merrilee Drive will be connected to Eskridge Road, which will make it easier for Dunn-Loring residents, office workers and transit users to enjoy the amenities of Merrifield. A thornier problem is to connect Eskridge Road with Williams Drive and Arlington Boulevard. A few properties, including the Four Seasons Tennis Club (pictured on right), separate Eskridge and Williams. The medical staff and other office workers and visitors on Williams Drive are just 10 minutes away from Merrifield Town Center by foot — and within bicycling distance of the Dunn-Loring station — but private properties, a parking lot and a fence separate them. That just funnels more car traffic onto Arlington Boulevard, Gallows Road, Prosperity Drive and the Beltway.

Fairfax County looked closely into connecting Eskridge and Williams as part of the Merrifield rezoning, but stopped short when many property owners opposed it. But even if a connecting road cannot be built, one would think that the county could work with property owners to acquire easements for a trail connecting the two roads. It would be good for business in Merrifield, connect the many residents and workers in this area with amenities, and reduce the traffic burden on the roads.

Posted in Bicycling, Transit-oriented development, Transportation, Walking | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Street grid near Fairfax Boulevard would be good, but don’t make it an island

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on August 3, 2009

Fair Lakes Market CommonsLast week Fairfax City Councilmembers briefly discussed a critical step in the implementation of the Fairfax Boulevard master plan — a more connected, walkable and bikeable street network. The city recently enacted a new commercial real estate tax dedicated exclusively to funding transportation projects. The first priority for this new money is to build a street network in the “Northfax” section of Fairfax Boulevard near Route 123. While the plans are still in a very early stage, and redevelopment proposals have not yet even been formally submitted, a dedicated funding source makes it likely that redevelopment in Northfax will move relatively quickly.

The Fairfax Boulevard master plan recommends a “8/10/10/8” design of new local streets — 8 feet for on-street parking on each side, a 10 foot travel lane, and wide sidewalks. The recommended design would resemble the street pictured above, at the Market Commons development in Fair Lakes — creating a pleasant place to walk, ride your bike, and spend money at local businesses.

It would be great to have new walkable streets in Fairfax City in places that are currently taken up mostly by surface parking. Doing this, though, will be easier than implementing the main aspect of the master plan, which is taming Fairfax Boulevard itself. The recommendations in the master plan call for a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly boulevard with five travel lanes and two access lanes for local traffic. The “5-2” design would make Fairfax Boulevard a much more pleasant place to walk along. It would also make the street easier to cross, so that local residents could more easily get to places on the Boulevard on foot or bicycle rather than adding to the traffic. But city council members and developers are skeptical about the 5-2 design.

Without a more ambitious redesign of the Boulevard, the local streets will be nice places to go, but — like Market Commons and many other new developments in Fairfax County — they will be islands of livability surrounded by inhospitable wide roads.

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