Fairfax Suburbanista

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Archive for the ‘Fairfax City’ Category

Getting across the street

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on November 10, 2009

Rte 7 ped

Route 7 near Seven Corners has many pedestrians, no sidewalks and no safe crossings

If you live in Fairfax and want to walk or bicycle to the 7-11, your job or to your child’s school, chances are you will have to cross a major road. To bicycle to our son’s elementary school, we have to cross both Route 236 and Route 50, plus a busy secondary road, Jermantown Road. During peak hours Route 236 and 50 have many turning vehicles and short walk cycles. The crosswalks are poorly lit, increasing the risk of collisions with pedestrians.

But these crosswalks are still a lot safer than on many other arterial roads in Fairfax County. Twenty two pedestrians were killed on Route 1 between 1995 and 2005, according to a 2008 report by the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Eleven pedestrians were killed on Route 7.  A lot of people live along these streets, and many of them don’t drive. Yet the streets lack sidewalks, lighting and safe crossings.

Virginia ranks last among states in spending on pedestrian and bicycle projects per capita, according to a report released yesterday by Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership. The report,  Dangerous by Design: Solving the Epidemic of Preventable Pedestrian Deaths (and Making Great Neighborhoods), looks at pedestrian spending and safety, using a “pedestrian danger index” that computes the rate of pedestrian deaths relative to the amount of walking the residents do on average. For safety, the Washington area ranks 32nd among the largest 52 metro areas  (with 52 being the least dangerous) — better than many Sunbelt areas that have been mostly built in the age of the automobile, but worse than Virginia Beach and many comparable metro regions.  A 2008 report by the Coalition for Smarter Growth ranked Fairfax as the most dangerous county in the region for pedestrians, based on the same pedestrian danger index.

Fairfax County  recognizes the problem and is investing millions of dollars in better pedestrian design on its most dangerous roads. Earlier this year the $8 million Patrick Henry pedestrian bridge opened on Route 50 near Falls Church. But this may not be the best design solution.  Steven Offutt’s great post on the bridge showed that most pedestrians still cross on the street. Ultimately, the street itself has to be made more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.

Making these roads complete streets that are safe and convenient for all users will require a major overhaul of VDOT’s current approach. VDOT does have a policy requiring routine accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists as part of any major road construction and maintenance project. But sidewalks and bike lanes, however important, are only parts of complete streets. There are many tools such as bulb-outs, pedestrian refuge islands, express bus lanes and tighter curb radii that would correct the balance toward pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users.

There is no better place to use these tools than at Tysons Corner. If we don’t build complete streets on Routes 7 and 123, the success of transit-oriented development at Tysons will be limited. Will VDOT and other agencies involved in the redesign of these roads show more flexibility in making them pleasant and safe for walking and bicycling?

Posted in Bicycling, Central Fairfax, Fairfax Boulevard, Fairfax City, Transportation, Tysons Corner, VDOT, Walk to school, Walking | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Old Lee Highway: Fairfax’s Gold Coast?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on November 5, 2009

Exterior_CivicGreen

The Sherwood Community Center will be a 4 minute bike ride from Old Town

George mason Sq3

The city is also planning to redevelop this patchwork of parking lots and older buildings into a public plaza

Just about a 10-minute walk from one another are two city projects that could help shift energies and activity from our malls to more genuine public spaces. George Mason Square in Old Town is bookended by two parking lots on North Street, with two old buildings and Kitty Pozer Garden in between. The city owns the parcel and will be seeking a development partner to reinvent this space as a public plaza with shops fronting Old Lee Highway. One enterprising citizen has started a Facebook group to organize support for a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly project.

Further down Old Lee, the Sherwood family has made a donation to the city that will allow it to build a community center in Van Dyck Park. Among other features, the community center will include bicycle racks with kid-friendly designs, including a potential bike-a-saurus rack.

George Mason Square could become a great “third place” where people could go to read the paper, talk to a friend, play chess, blow on their harmonica, or just watch the people go by. Kids could walk or bicycle to the Community Center and hang out with their friends without having to get driven around by their parents. It’s great that the city is focusing on creating attractive public spaces.

Just as important as the design of the spaces will be connecting these spaces so people can easily get to them on foot or by bicycle. Let’s say you’re shopping in George Mason Square and your kid wants to go the playground. Are you going to sit him or her in the backseat of the car and drive to Van Dyck Park, or take a 10-minute walk there, and maybe stop along the way at a redeveloped, pedestrian-friendly Courthouse Square? The latter would be a much more pleasant experience, and will create more business for the city. Or you could bicycle there, which would be much easier if the city striped bike lanes on Old Lee.

Posted in Fairfax City, Public spaces, Walking | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

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.

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

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 »

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.

Posted in Fairfax City | 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.

Posted in Affordable homes, Fairfax City, Planning | Tagged: , | Leave a 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.

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

Looks pretty, but try walking there

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 24, 2009

The new Chevy Chase Bank  on Fairfax Boulevard and Warwick Avenue was approved by Fairfax City shortly after completion of the excellent Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan in 2007. The new building — on the site of one of the Boulevard’s many foundering or former furniture showrooms — has several good features: a pocket park; a nice wide sidewalk with a bench and trees that, over time, will provide shade;  a well-designed wall buffering pedestrians from the front parking lot; and a handsome Neo-classical front.
But these “human scale” features — making the site more welcome to someone who is actually present there rather than behind a windshield — are just a tease. There is no pedestrian access from the sidewalk. A parking lot separates the building from the street. The building’s two entrances front the parking lot and larger shopping plaza on one side, and the drive-through area on the other.
The recently approved Fairfax Pointe project has similar hints at human-scale, pedestrian-oriented design, but also falls short in some important ways. This new one-story retail building at the confluence of Fairfax Boulevard, Route 29, and Route 236, whose expected tenants include a restaurant and small grocery,will present a false front at Route 236 and have entrances on this street, but the main entrance will be from the parking lot on Fairfax Boulevard. Most of the site is taken up by surface parking. Will people walk there? The planned uses are neighborhood-oriented, and the Fairchester and Warren Woods neighborhoods are within easy walking distance. But the design, as well as conditions on 236 and Fairfax Boulevard, are much less conducive to walking and bicycling — and business — than they could be. The project could have been designed more intentionally to encourage walking trips and reduce traffic on these extremely clogged arterials.
Let’s hope future projects on the Boulevard are more closely aligned with the creative vision of the master plan.
Nice facade. . .

Nice facade. . .

Nice sidewalk. . .

Nice sidewalk. . .

. . . but the entrance is behind a parking lot

. . . but the entrance is behind a parking lot

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

Superblocks about to tumble

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 9, 2009

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

Few places are as existentially lonely as a parking lot of an over-the-hill shopping center. I spent a recent afternoon scouting out the area around the in-transition Fairfax Center and Jermantown Plaza shopping centers, located on both sides of Route 29 west of Kamp Washington. Both owned by A.J. Dwoskin and Associates, these shopping centers have lost key tenants and their parking lots are vast asphalt deserts. Across Jermantown Road is industrial space and the Ted Britt Ford dealership; Britt is apparently interested in redeveloping his property. The Waples Mill homes, a very well maintained mobile home community behind Fairfax Center, has also been eyed for redevelopment. Much of this area is in play over the next few years — and it’s an eight-minute bike ride from our house.

Some neighbors had their pitchforks ready at the intimation of redevelopment of Waples Mill Homes as part of the Fairfax County Area Plans Review process several years ago. The fact that this area straddles the Fairfax City / County border makes land use even more complex. But redevelopment of Jermantown Plaza could relieve traffic problems by creating more connecting roads between Route 29 and Lee-Jackson Highway, and extending the Government Center Parkway to Jermantown Road. And with the pleasant Morrison Townhomes complex on Stevenson Road, and the development of the Ridgewood mixed-income apartments and condominiums near 29 and Ridge Top Road, we have something to build on.

I’ll miss Bloom, but these it’s time to carve these superblocks into something much finer and more functional.

Posted in Central Fairfax, Fairfax Boulevard, Fairfax City | Leave a Comment »