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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 Outdated parking regulations and road design standards are two of the reasons that Fairfax Corner and the surrounding residences and stores do not function well as a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.

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