Fairfax Suburbanista

Making growth work in Fairfax

Archive for October, 2009

Make some small plans

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 30, 2009

Silver Spring has made a busy arterial road more transit-oriented and pedestrian-friendly. Photo by Mastery of Maps

Silver Spring has used transit to design more walkable communities along busy arterial roads. Photo by Mastery of Maps.

Fifteen billion dollars is a hard number to forget. That’s how much Fairfax planning staff estimates will be needed for transportation improvements to accommodate future growth in Tysons Corner. Civic groups will wring their hands, and planning commissioners will have more heartburn. But the estimate is a 10,000 foot view that focuses on major capital projects including several that are only peripherally related to Tysons Corner. Looking closer to the ground — literally — could yield more efficiencies.

What if Routes 7 and 123, the major arterial roads along which the rail extension will travel, were redesigned as more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly boulevards? How many car trips would pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design reduce? How much redevelopment right along these roads would more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design encourage, leading to more people living, working and walking or bicycling along this corridor and leaving their cars in the garage (or not having a car at all)? How much money in avoided capital improvements would such design save?

You could ask the same kinds of questions for the internal grid of streets Fairfax wants to build in Tysons. If they are designed right, with pedestrian-friendly features such as bulb-outs and tight curb radii, residents, shoppers, and workers will be much more likely to walk, people will want to live there, and major capital projects needed to accommodate more cars will not be as necessary. They will also create wealth for residents by saving them the high costs of owning and maintaining a car.

ImagineDC pointed in a recent post to Montgomery County’s success in accommodating growth along its Red Line corridor without having to add new freeways. One of the things that Bethesda and Silver Spring have done well is to reinvent their major roads along the Red Line as more pedestrian-friendly streets. Wisconsin Avenue is a great place to walk. Colesville Road is a good place to walk, and getting better.

The current plans for Tysons’ major roads will make cosmetic pedestrian improvements but are focused on getting more cars through. VDOT wants to put dual left turn lanes on Route 7. There will be no bike lanes. Bicyclists and pedestrians will share the sidewalk. The current designs will encourage speed, more car turning movements, longer blocks — and fewer opportunities to cross the street. Those “improvements” will be expensive in more ways than one.

Smaller, and much cheaper tweaks to Routes 7 and 123 will make them more inviting streets, attract more development, and make that development more profitable. Having an above-ground Metrorail is a challenge. But elevated lines in other cities have not gotten in the way of creating good streets where people want to be.


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A step forward — maybe

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 29, 2009

Gallows and Strawberry toward 29

Local control might help make crosswalks such as this one at Merrifield Town Center more pedestrian-friendly.

If you’ve ever tried walking or bicycling on Gallows Road, you know it’s hardly a pleasant experience. The road is extremely wide, has narrow sidewalks, and is very difficult to cross as pedestrians try to beat cars moving and turning in every direction. It could be much different. Threading through some major destinations including Fairfax Hospital, Exxon-Mobil’s world headquarters, and the W & OD Trail all the way to Tysons Corner, Gallows could be a great corridor for walking, bicycling and using transit. In fact, some of the county’s major development initiatives, such as Merrifield Town Center, Dunn Loring, and Tysons Corner, are planned along this road.

But Fairfax doesn’t have control over the design of Gallows Road. The Virginia Department Of Transportation does. Even as county officials decide how to best plan development so more people can walk, bicycle, and use transit, the most important factor — whether they can safely cross the street — is out of their hands.

This could change. As Kali Schumitz of the Fairfax Times reports, Fairfax County has initiated a study of options for taking over road maintenance and construction from VDOT.  Fairfax wants to wrest more money for transportation from Richmond and control that money themselves. But local control of roads could also help make the county more walkable and bicycle-friendly.

In all Virginia counties but two, VDOT controls both the primary roads like Route 123 and Route 50, and secondary roads that connect with primary roads. Arlington and Henrico Counties have taken over control of their secondary roads, although VDOT still controls the primary roads. Fairfax is looking to do the same thing.

Local control certainly is no panacea. Fairfax City controls all of its roads, and they are hardly pedestrian paradises. Wherever they work, transportation engineers are trained in the same places and follow the same rigorous and generally auto-oriented discipline. And even if Fairfax did take over its secondary roads, VDOT would still control the arterial roads that are the biggest barriers to pedestrian and bicycle access.

But local control of secondary roads would enable Fairfax citizens and groups to hold their local officials more accountable. Right now it is too easy for our elected officials and transportation department to pass the buck to VDOT. With local control, they would have to walk the talk — and we would have to make them.

Posted in Bicycling, Fairfax City, smart growth, Transportation, VDOT, Walking | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

More is better

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 28, 2009

Last night Fairfax City heard a request by the developer of Ratcliffe Hall to downscale an already approved development near Old Town from 154 to 114 homes. The developer, Jaguar Homes, is also seeking to add 57 surface parking spaces. While the City Council and Planning Commission haven’t formally approved the request, the amendments will likely go through once Jaguar works out a few tweaks. That will continue an unfortunate trend toward fewer rather than more homes being built within walking distance of downtown Fairfax. But this isn’t the usual story of anti-neighbors blocking denser urban development.

Ratcliffe Hall was approved in early 2005 when the economy was humming and the developer saw a strong market for “active adult communities.” The development site, a 10-acre forested area along Main Street, lies right between several neighborhoods and Old Town and the County Judicial Center. The site is bisected by a stream. Most neighbors who testified supported the project. Jaguar had already built the pedestrian-oriented Providence Square condominiums in Old Town Fairfax, near Main Street Marketplace. The plan for Ratcliffe Hall was to front Main Street with 36 townhomes and provide 118 condominium units inside a single building on the other side of the stream. Now Jaguar wants to replace the 118 condos with a more conventional townhouse subdivision layout, consisting of 26 townhomes and 52 condo units. They want to replace underground parking with cheaper surface parking.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the city has an opportunity to improve pedestrian and bicycle access. With a few tweaks, the new residences could be better connected to the trail network and Old Town, and the new trail could provide better pedestrian and bicycle access for surrounding neighborhoods. Several city council and planning commission members pressed Jaguar to work with surrounding landowners to ensure that the trails are connected and flow into nearby destinations such as the Post Office. More townhomes will also likely bring a more varied mix of residents, including families.

Still, the proposed changes in both density and design are disappointing. Forty fewer residential units are a lot for a city struggling to add a critical mass of people and patrons to its downtown mix. Two new downtown restaurants have already closed. The new design is very inward-looking, with buildings oriented toward the parking garages and an internal “plaza,” instead of encouraging residents toward a shared public space — which the stream valley trail could be, with some changes in design.

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While Fairfax City fiddles. . .

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 23, 2009

Another new strip mall at Kamp Washington is setting a poor pattern for the redevelopment of Fairfax Boulevard

Another new strip mall at Kamp Washington is setting a poor pattern for the redevelopment of Fairfax Boulevard

Since the Fairfax Boulevard master plan was presented to the City Council two and a half years ago, Fairfax City has approved three major development projects on the west side of the Boulevard near Kamp Washington. All three are variations of a standard suburban strip mall. Parking lots front the buildings. The newest development, pictured at left, will make $2 dry cleaning just a 15-minute walk from my house. But I will never walk there, or to the Starbucks nearby, given the pedestrian-unfriendly design.

Fairfax City’s comprehensive plan is due to be updated this year. The city has not yet published a draft update or announced public meetings. The comprehensive plan is a good opportunity to create more specific, pedestrian-friendly guidelines for the redevelopment of Fairfax Boulevard. It might already be too late to make the west side of the Boulevard pedestrian-friendly. The car-oriented mold set by recent developments will probably be here for the next 20 years. But east of Chain Bridge Road, and on Fairfax Circle, there is still time to plan better.

City Council and Planning Commission members have expressed skepticism about adopting a form-based code for the Boulevard, one of the recommendations of the master plan. Their skepticism is not unwarranted. Form-based codes can become just as cumbersome as orthodox zoning, with myriad details that can get in the way of good development. But this shouldn’t get in the way of adopting simple, clear guidelines for Boulevard redevelopment, including:

  • Buildings should be oriented toward the sidewalk and have entrances on the sidewalk
  • The ground floors of buildings should be transparent, providing a more pleasant and diverting pedestrian environment
  • Sidewalks should be widened to at least 10′
WholeFoods Clarendon

Whole Foods' Arlington store looks good from the sidewalk.

This doesn’t have to be a tome. We just need a stronger framework so we can get better development. And we need it fast, before more development gets in the pipeline. Let’s hope the city gets the comprehensive plan update underway soon — and when they do, make sure to speak out for strong, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly guidelines for Fairfax Boulevard.

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What are we getting for $5,000,000,000?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 15, 2009

The Springfield Interchange. Photo courtesy bankbryan, <div xmlns:cc="http://creativecommons.org/ns#" about="http://www.flickr.com/photos/bankbryan/326714624/"><a rel="cc:attributionURL" href=

The Springfield Interchange. Photo courtesy bankbryan, http://www.flickr.com/photos/bankbryan/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

With so much discussion focused on getting more money for transportation, a little perspective is helpful. As Ashley Halsey III reports in today’s Washington Post, Northern Virginia has $5 billion in transit and road projects currently under construction.  But this $5 billion, all agree, will do little to ease congestion or shorten commutes. As every motorist knows, the traffic delays from constructing the projects are themselves considerable. The Springfield Interchange improvements may never recover all the lost time in traffic caused by the project in the first place.

Land use is the elephant in the room, and Halsey sees it — unlike the Post’s editors. More efficient, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly land use, focused near transit stations and along corridors with some semblance of a pedestrian infrastructure, such as Routes 1, 7, 236, is the only way that Fairfax will be able to address its transportation crisis. It will certainly take money to make the improvements needed to redevelop these areas, upgrade their infrastructure, put in more efficient street grids, and even, in some cases, widen roads to accommodate increased traffic. The formidable planning apparatus being rolled out to retrofit Tysons Corner gives a sense of just how difficult and expensive — and necessary — this will be.

The problem is that there’s been little coordinated analysis, planning or funding for these needed land use and transportation improvements. Atlanta, despite its well deserved reputation for dysfunctional land use, has a robust Livable Centers Initiative that prioritizes $500 million in transportation funds for communities that are making innovative land use decisions. While the Washington area has  some helpful programs to encourage greater coordination of transportation and land use, it lacks a strong tool such as this. The Coalition for Smarter Growth’s Blueprint for a Better Region provides a great vision for development around the region’s transit assets. We need a program with strong funding incentives to make this vision happen.

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Will the candidates talk about priorities?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 12, 2009

As Senator Creigh Deeds and Attorney General Robert McDonnell get set to square off in tonight’s gubernatorial debate in Richmond, they will be once again be asked how they will raise more money for transportation. That’s the wrong question. There will never be close to enough money for the wish list of transportation projects promoted by Northern Virginia’s road and sprawl development lobby. The transportation discussion needs to change its focus from money to priorities.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Piedmont Environmental Council are trying to reorient the discussion, asking the candidates to describe their plans for reforming the state’s process of planning, selecting, and funding transportation projects.

The Coalition and PEC identify several principles that should guide transportation investments, including:

  • Revitalizing existing communities.  Redevelopment in Virginia’s cities, towns and older communities will allow the private sector to partner with the state in replacing aging roads, water, sewer and other infrastructure, while reducing the amount that Virginians have to drive.
  • Designing communities to be mixed-use, mixed-income, walking and bicycling-friendly, and transit-oriented to reduce commute distances, improve access to jobs and services, and reduce energy use.
  • Focusing on repair and replacement of existing roads, transit, and other infrastructure.  The state has a $3.7 billion backlog of structurally deficient bridges, yet VDOT proposes an $11.4 billion expansion of I-81 – most of it to 8 lanes; an approach that is unaffordable.
  • Directing spending to better local street networks that more safely accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists and support mixed-use development.
  • Tying economic development incentives to companies that locate in cities, towns and/or adjacent to high-capacity transit; and for industrial facilities and distribution centers that locate adjacent to freight rail lines.

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Fairfax City’s gem

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 12, 2009

Van Dyck ParkVan Dyck Park is Fairfax City’s best public space. On a nice weekend afternoon you will see kids of all ages, parents, grandparents, soccer players, picnickers playing on the playground, skateboarding, talking, playing hoops and soccer, and reading among other activities. The people enjoying the park reflect the city’s and the county’s diversity.

There are several reasons that the park works so well. It mixes a lot of recreational uses — including a playground, picnic canopy, skateboard park, tennis courts, basketball court, volleyball, and a soccer field. It is centrally located — close to downtown Fairfax, near two schools and along a walking and bike path.

Posted in Fairfax City, Public spaces | 1 Comment »

Less pretty, more functional please

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 8, 2009

Vienna Maple LawyersDon’t let the pretty bricks fool you. This crosswalk in downtown Vienna is no fun if you have to walk on it. Wide curb radii make it much more difficult to cross because a)they lengthen the walking distance, and b) motorists are encouraged to take turns without stopping or looking for pedestrians.

For years Vienna and Fairfax have been trying to revitalize their downtowns and make them more walkable and bicycle-friendly. But there’s a big disconnect with conventional traffic engineering wisdom. Getting more automobiles through the road faster trumps everything. Traffic calming measures such as squaring off intersections get in the way of this engineering priority.

One issue is institutional. VDOT controls the roads in Fairfax County.The agency is not accountable to local communities. Local control over roads could lead to more flexible, pedestrian-friendly designs. Although pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design of Routes 7 and 123 will be critical to making Tysons Corner work as a transit-oriented community, VDOT shows little sign of flexibility in its auto-focused approach. This is one reason Fairfax County is looking into taking control of its roads.

But that’s not the only issue. Even county and local transportation divisions tend to narrowly focus on automobile “throughput.” Engineers are trained to move cars efficiently. Pedestrian and bicycle-oriented features are not familiar concepts to many traffic engineers. Local elected officials hear complaints about traffic all the time, and usually it is from a “windshield perspective.” So they, too, are often pressured to look for short-term, auto-oriented solutions rather than a more balanced approach.

In addition, often our elected leaders themselves have a windshield perspective. It can help to take them on walks and bicycle rides to broaden their perspective.

Until a better balance is struck between the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users and motorists, Vienna, Fairfax and other communities will not be able to attract a critical mass of people to revitalize their downtowns. One good step would be for VDOT and local transportation divisions to train all their engineering staff in the Complete Streets approach to street design.

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Greasing the chain

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 7, 2009

Tysons Tour Apr 07Earlier this week Fairfax County took the first step toward a bicycle master plan. The County Board of Supervisors approved a motion by Supervisor Jeff McKay directing the staff to study the development of a bicycle plan and provide recommendations for funding and creating the plan.

Fairfax County currently has very few bicycle projects in its countywide transportation plan. Less than 2 percent of the funds in VDOT’s Six-Year Transportation Improvement Program for Northern Virginia are for bicycle and pedestrian improvements. If it is not in these plans, it will not get built.

Washington DC approved a bicycle master plan in 2005.  Bicycle projects are now integrated in the city’s transportation plan, guiding decisions about design and funding for projects. Bicycle use in the city has soared. Without the plan, many bicycle projects would not have gotten into the city’s funding and construction pipeline. The bicycle master plan took a lot of work, and some money. But it is paying off.

With the budget constraints, Fairfax County cannot fund a bicycle planning effort. But the approval of a study of a bike plan greases the chain for a bicycle planning process when funding gets less tight. Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling, which has been campaigning for a bicycle master plan, recognized this and worked with Supervisor McKay to get the process started. The District of Columbia used crack consultants to do their bicycle master plan, and the high quality and precision of their work surely has helped legitimize the plan and get it implemented. Still, the county might want to consider getting started with the resources it already has and not wait too long before beginning the plan. Despite the incessant hand-wringing about Virginia’s transportation woes, new money for transportation is coming within the next couple years through the federal transportation reauthorization. We need to be prepared with specific bicycle and pedestrian projects to take advantage of the opportunities.

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Reduce traffic, but don’t cut through my neighborhood

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 2, 2009

Fairfax City residents have communicated two major concerns about traffic to city planners:

1) They don’t like all the traffic from other areas pouring through their major streets like 50, 29, and 236

2) They don’t like the increasing cut-through traffic in their neighborhoods

We’re going to have to get over this. Unless our local secondary streets are more interconnected and our neighborhoods work more efficiently for vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians, traffic will continue to be funneled to the major roads. Motorists will continue to try to outsmart this system by finding alternate routes through neighborhoods, no matter how circuitous. They will take their frustrations at having to go to such labyrinthine extremes to avoid the chokepoints on the major roads by doing California stops and speeding. This is human nature. Only better design can solve this problem.

County planners recognize that a grid of streets is needed to alleviate traffic such as here in Tysons Corner.

County planners recognize that a grid of streets is needed to alleviate traffic such as here in Tysons Corner.

The city has not shown much backbone on this issue. When residents along University Drive complained about increasing traffic, the city spent millions of dollars to close the street to cars and build a new road. University Drive was one of the city’s better functioning streets, where cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians coexisted well. Now it is a desolate no-man’s land.

The city seems to be more farsighted in planning the redevelopment of Fairfax Boulevard. The city is studying adding a grid of local streets connected to Fairfax Boulevard. The draft master plan for Fairfax Boulevard recommends key connections such as extending University Drive to Eaton Place. The Virginia Department of Transportation has recently adopted a policy that requires state-maintained secondary streets to be more interconnected. This is a good incentive for localities to better connect new developments and the roads that serve them.

City leaders have inherited an inefficient system of disconnected streets and residential enclaves. Residents are ambivalent: they hate the traffic, but they like the enclosure from the car sewers that our major roads are. We need a more honest dialogue about the trade-offs and real solutions to cut-through traffic.

Posted in Transportation | 2 Comments »