Fairfax Suburbanista

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Archive for the ‘Planning’ Category

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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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 areĀ  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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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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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 delicatessenĀ  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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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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