Fairfax Suburbanista

Making growth work in Fairfax

Archive for September, 2009

Preserving our neighborhoods

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on September 28, 2009

Yesterday I took a great tour of my Fairfax City neighborhood led by Ross Landis and Karen Moore of the Westmore Civic Association. This area is even younger than I had thought. Westmore  consists of bungalows on a grid of streets — as opposed to our abutting neighborhood of Warren Woods with its maddeningly labyrinthine streets and split-level homes. Both subdivisions were built after World War II — Westmore beginning around 1947, Warren Woods in the mid-50s. Given the extraordinary housing crunch in Washington DC during and after the war, you can imagine how ecstatic people were to find fairly inexpensive homes on the outskirts of DC, even if it was in the hinterlands of central Fairfax County and the nearest grocery store was in Arlington.

This idea didn't take off, but the suburbs did

This idea didn't take off, but the suburbs did. Exhibit from the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum

Fairfax City in 1950 had under 2,000 residents. During the next twenty years its population grew almost ten-fold, to just under 20,000. Most of its homes and shopping centers were developed during this two-decade period when the car was king, and before the side effects of auto-oriented development were recognized by anyone except fringe urban enthusiasts and environmentalists. You now see signs of Fairfax’s age on Fairfax Boulevard, with its glut of underperforming shopping malls and auto dealerships. Neighborhoods, unlike strip malls, tend to get better with age, and Westmore homes will continue to be attractive to the young families and others who are moving into Fairfax City.

One of the challenges of reinventing Fairfax Boulevard will be to educate the residents of Westmore, Fairchester, Cobbdale and other adjoining neighborhoods that a new look and feel for the Boulevard will actually preserve and enhance the character of their neighborhoods. That is a tough sell. The most active and vocal residents tend to like things just as they are, thank you. But if Fairfax Boulevard sticks to the same model of strip-mall land use, Fairfax City will continue to lose business and tax revenue to nearby malls in the county. Arlington’s older neighborhoods coexist well with all the activity on Wilson and Fairfax Drives. Fairfax City can make the same step toward a more urban, walkable “main street” and historic suburban neighborhoods.

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Boulevard, or auto sewer?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on September 25, 2009

This is a boulevard?

This is a boulevard?

When you take the future Silver Line to Tysons Corner, chances are you’ll end up walking along either Leesburg Pike or Chain Bridge Road. All of the four planned Metro stations will be on either Leesburg or Chain Bridge. They will be the most important streets in a redeveloped Tysons Corner. For Tysons to become a real place, people on these streets will need to feel comfortable  bicycling, walking, sitting with a friend and drinking coffee, window-shopping and doing the many other things that support a vibrant urban environment.

Fairfax County’s draft comprehensive plan for Tysons Corner recognizes the importance of redesigning these pedestrian- and bicycle-unfriendly roads.  Complete streets principles are honored in theory. But the proposed design will not create a more  inviting environment for people who want to experience the pleasures and amenities of a city. Above is one of the proposed “Boulevard” cross-sections for Chain Bridge Road  and Leesburg Pike. There would be four car travel lanes in each direction and a median. A tree buffer is planned between the sidewalk and the road. The local service lanes that currently exist on Leesburg Pike would be eliminated. These currently serve slower-moving traffic and are good for bicycling. There are no bicycle lanes.

Arlington has more created complete streets to complement transit, such as here at Courthouse. Photo courtesy digitaldefection, http://www.flickr.com/photos/digitaldefection/

Arlington has created complete streets to complement transit, such as here at Courthouse. Photo courtesy digitaldefection, http://www.flickr.com/photos/digitaldefection/

The median will be literally overshadowed by above-ground Metro tracks. That will make it even harder to redesign Leesburg and Chain Bridge as complete streets. In fact, the major players in the rail project — including the Metro Washington Airports Authority, VDOT, Washington Metro and Fairfax County — seem resigned to the rail corridors becoming dark, impersonal and pedestrian-unfriendly places where the only safe crossings will be the station bridges. That’s certainly the impression given by the latest visual renderings.  SAIC, which is moving its national headquarters to Tysons, is planning to build its own bridge to get employees across Leesburg Pike.

Isn’t there a better way to balance concerns about traffic flow and accommodating the Metro rail with creating a more pleasant urban environment?   In Arlington, the major thoroughfares on the Rosslyn-Ballston transit corridor carry a lot of traffic but also include on-street parking and bike lanes. Let’s hope we can find a better design for these key streets in Tysons.

Posted in Bicycling, Transit-oriented development, Tysons Corner, VDOT | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Unaffordable housing

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on September 22, 2009

FarrcroftFairfax City is updating its comprehensive plan this fall. That provides a good opportunity for residents to weigh in on bedrock policies underlying the town’s future. Not everything in comprehensive plans gets implemented. But nonetheless, the priorities in the plan guide decisions about development and transportation. So it’s worth getting the right priorities into the plan.

One of the more perplexing priorities — which the town has followed all too well — is a focus on “Move up” housing. The logic goes like this. Fairfax City residents have high median incomes. The value of Fairfax City’s housing relative to the median income of its current residents is lower than the relative housing-income ratio for Fairfax County. In other words, we have too much affordable housing, and not enough unaffordable housing. The town fears that residents earning a lot of money will move out to other parts of Northern Virginia that have more unaffordable housing than Fairfax City does. This focus on building more upscale housing has reliably guided rezoning decisions for the past two decades in Fairfax City, resulting in the development of enclaves such as Farrcroft and Pickett’s Reserve.

Fairfax City’s standard defense of this unaffordable housing policy is that the town has more than its fair share of affordable rental units. More upscale housing means a lot more money for public services, parks and schools. Fairfax City has a low property tax rate and excellent services. More upscale housing certainly has something to do with this.

But enough is enough. The real estate market will surely find a high enough price point for new developments without needing a government slant toward making housing even more expensive. The average assessed value of a detached house in Fairfax City is $469,467; for a single-family attached house, it is $718,075. Surely we’ve reached a ceiling. We should be thinking about not just the people who live here, but also the people who work here as well as people who might want to live here. Residents of outlying Northern Virginia counties such as Prince William and Fauquier have very long average commutes and high transportation costs. (See the Urban Land Institute’s Beltway Burden, p. 9 for facts and figures.) One reason is that they are  priced out of closer-in housing markets. Is this Fairfax City’s problem? Well, yes — if you want to do something about the traffic congestion that is caused largely by commuters from these areas commuting through, and to, Fairfax City.

A better set of housing priorities would include compact, walkable apartments or condominiums in Fairfax Circle, where the Vienna Metro station is a ten minute bike ride away. Fairfax City should declare (pyrrhic) victory in its upscale housing campaign and acknowledge the reality that homeownership is not for everyone. While the plan doesn’t have to embrace more rental housing, it should reassess where the town is now and look into a mix of housing options that serve people who both work and live in the Central Fairfax area.

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Getting Tysons right

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on September 15, 2009

Will Tysons Corner become a real place, with a mix of homes and shops, restaurants and offices that people can walk to? The debate about density reported in today’s Washington Post is important. But it shouldn’t be the only issue.

As the Post’s Lisa Rein reports, Fairfax County planning staff are recommending densities for a redeveloped Tysons Corner that are lower than those recommended by the Tysons Land Use Task Force, a group of Tysons landowners and local civic leaders that created a vision document for Tysons Corner last year. There would be fewer people living and working right near the four planned Metro stations if the staff recommendations were implemented. That could discourage developers looking to build well designed, truly transit-oriented urban buildings and places. The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington has very dense office and residential developments right next to the Metro stations, and density greatly tapers off the farther you get from the stations. The staff recommendations would have much lower maximum densities near the stations.

Planning staff say that you can create a walkable and livable place at the densities they recommend, with buildings set close to the street and a vibrant urban environment. Higher densities, they suggest, will require more transportation infrastructure to move so many people around — including extremely expensive large-scale highway and road improvements. The companies that own the land closest to the four Metro stations naturally want as much density as they can get, and want the higher densities envisioned by the Tysons Land Use Task Force.

To put things in perspective, the staff recommendations still would leave Tysons Corner with more office, retail and housing space than the planned full build-out of Arlington’s Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, which is roughly the same size. The main questions should be, “How will this space be allocated?” and “How will the buildings and surrounding streets be designed?” Arlington’s success suggests that you can develop extremely densely on the land closest to the Metro stations without increasing traffic. Traffic in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor has not increased, because so many more people are walking, bicycling, and using transit.

There may actually be no “magic formula” for the right density levels. But higher density near transit does not mean more traffic, if the buildings and streets are well designed. Will the major thoroughfares such as Route 7 and International Boulevard be designed so that they are easier to walk across and bicycle on? Will they be designed so that people actually want to walk there?

Posted in Transit-oriented development, Tysons Corner | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Inviting public spaces

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on September 10, 2009

Is this supposed to be a real public space -- or just eye candy for cars?

Is this supposed to be a real public space -- or just eye candy for cars?

Despite some artfully designed new residential developments, replete with moats, trails and gazebos, you don’t see many people walking or just enjoying the public spaces in Fairfax City. The plaza in Old Town does attract a fairly broad array of people — old, young, parents and little kids, businesspeople and lawyers, etc. But the public spaces near Farrcroft and Gateway Fairfax, well designed as they are, attract very few people. I’ve never seen anyone sitting on the benches along the trail that runs by Farrcroft. Nor have I ever seen anyone at the cupola pictured to the left, at Gateway Fairfax.

And maybe this, too, is by design. Are these supposed to be real public spaces — or just nice things to look at from your kitchen window, or out your windshield?

If the city were serious about creating more inviting public spaces, there would be benches and something to look at besides a pretty cupola at this space. A sculpture, perhaps. And there would be more places worth walking to. Students and residents might stop here on their way back from Bernie’s Delicatessen to eat their sandwiches. The staff of the nearby Inova branch or Sunrise Assisted Living Center might eat lunch or drink coffee here.

The presence of more people would have a civilizing effect on Chain Bridge Road as it changes from a 55-mph highway to what Fairfax hopes to become the “southern gateway” into the city. That, in turn, might spur a redesign of this section of the road so it is easier to cross and a more pleasant road to walk along. The nearby recently renovated Fairfax County Public Safety Center, while not perfect, is now a much more pleasant place to walk along. The city, with cooperation from state transportation officials, could build on this to make Chain Bridge Road a more inviting pedestrian corridor.

To its credit, the city’s Comprehensive Plan calls for a mixture of homes, stores and businesses in the area along Chain Bridge Road. However, a development proposal would amend the plan to place only homes on nearby School Street. If the city wants to create real public spaces and get more feet on the street, it should stick to its plan.

The redevelopment of Fairfax Boulevard will be the real test of the city’s commitment to vibrant public spaces. The first major parcel to be redeveloped will likely be the Fairfax Shopping Center on the Boulevard. The draft master plan envisions breaking this parcel up into a street grid that would connect with Eaton Place and extend University Drive, creating a local travel lane similar to what already exists further west on the Boulevard, widening the sidewalk and bringing storefronts up to the streets. The developers have indicated a much more automobile-oriented plan, including a grass berm that would divide the boulevard from the stores. This would just be more eye candy. If the city wants to create a place where people will want to actually stop, enjoy themselves and purchase things, they should hew more closely to the draft master plan.

Posted in Planning, Public spaces, Walking | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Stand by your plan

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on September 8, 2009

Royal Legacy Commons has a relatively good layout, but Fairfax City should stick with its plan for retail and commercial uses

Royal Legacy Commons has a relatively good layout, but Fairfax City should stick with its plan for retail and commercial uses

Rev. Johnson A. Edowomsan is seeking approval to build 39 townhomes on a 5 acre lot on School Street and Chain Bridge Road. Fairfax City’s comprehensive plan envisions mixed residential/retail/commercial use in this area. The developer wants to amend the plan to increase residential density, on a scale with the Fairfax Gateway townhouses he has built across Chain Bridge Road. Fairfax City should stick with its plan and require that some of the space be given to stores and offices.

The proposed Royal Legacy Commons would have homes near the front of both Chain Bridge Road and School Street, creating an improved facade on Chain Bridge Road. The developer has asked for a waiver of suburban-oriented setback requirements, and hopefully the city will grant this. Fairfax Gateway has a similar look, with the buildings set very close to School Street and front doors facing the street for each unit. It is a relatively pleasant street to walk on now.

In an area dominated by strip mall and chain stores, it may take more legwork per dollar of tax revenue to attract smaller scale retail operations — but it will be worth the effort. Chancery Park and nearby Fairfax Villa neighborhoods are an easy walk from this area. The excellent Bernie’s Delicatessen recently opened across School Street, so there is something to build on. Getting more people out on the streets to grab a sandwich or get their dry cleaning will make this a destination — rather than just another dumping point for cars in the morning and receptacle for cars in the afternoon and evening, which, even with its pedestrian-oriented layout, is what it will become without a mix of uses. And having more feet on the street will stimulate more people to walk and bicycle to George Mason and University Mall.

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Suburbanizing Old Town

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on September 3, 2009

Downtown Fairfax doesn't need more of this

Downtown Fairfax doesn't need more of this

Instead of condominiums, Fairfax City is poised to move forward with a suburban townhouse development in Old Town. Residential development on the lot formerly occupied by the city library has long been part of Fairfax’s plans for a lively downtown with more feet on the street outside lunch hour. Walnut Street Development had received approval to build 80 condominium units, but then backed out as the condo market soured. In April 2009 the city issued a new Request for Proposals for the site. RFP guidelines included a minimum size of 2,500 square feet per residential unit and minimum parking of 2-2.33 spaces per unit.

The winning development proposal did a good job of fitting within the framework of the RFP. “Madison Mews” will put 26 homes and 64 parking spaces on the lot, a major downscaling of the original plan. Instead of connecting pedestrians and bicyclists to downtown Fairfax, the development will dead-end and have only one entry and exit point on the opposite end. It’s designed to make it easy for residents to drive out of downtown and get on I-66. It doesn’t encourage residents to walk or bicycle to Old Town destinations, even though they will be a five-minute walk away.

Several people at the Tuesday meeting expressed dismay with the plan. “If you want to keep downtown sick, this is the way to kill it,” one resident remarked. To survive and thrive, local businesses need more residents who are looking for a more urban environment, one local landowner observed. “The density is grossly inadequate to revitalize downtown.”

Unfortunately, the proposal fits within current zoning. The next step is a site plan. The city could at least incrementally improve the project by requiring the developer to provide pedestrian and bicycle access on the southern edge of the development facing downtown.

Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments »