Fairfax Suburbanista

Making growth work in Fairfax

Archive for the ‘smart growth’ Category

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 »

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.

Posted in Planning, smart growth | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

It’s the land use, stupid

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 8, 2009

In an annual ritual of humiliation, the media has trotted out the latest traffic congestion figures for major metro regions. The annual study by the Texas Transportation Institute finds that, while traffic levels in many regions declined, traffic in the DC region actually increased, presumably because the recession has affected our economy less drastically than in other regions.

Ashley Halsey III’s story in today’s Washington Post does a good job of avoiding the “new capacity” trap that the Post too often falls into when traffic is the subject. As Halsey reports based on his interview with Ron Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments,  “Relocating people where the jobs are, or creating jobs where the people are, would alleviate congestion” more effectively than simply expanding roads. At the root of the region’s traffic problems are dysfunctional land use patterns that have separated employment centers, shopping destinations and homes.  (For another and more detailed look at Halsey’s coverage see David Alpert’s great post in www.greatergreaterwashington.org.)

That’s not something that politicians can easily tell their constituents, since the “fix” will take far longer than a four-year term in office. But look at how Arlington County has accommodated tremendous growth with no concurrent rise in traffic, through focusing growth around transit stations. In Fairfax County, on the other hand, as Zachary Schrag shows in his seminal work, The Great Society Subway, the main Metro line was planned along the route of least resistance, along the I-66 corridor, and with no coordination with the emergence of Tysons Corner as the region’s predominant edge city. Is it any wonder traffic is the universal subject of conversation here?

Posted in smart growth, Transportation | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Get over the Dillon Rule

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 1, 2009

Fairfax County leaders often invoke Dillon’s Rule when they are painted into a corner. The county’s authority is narrowly defined on matters such as land use and taxation, so the story goes, and Richmond is tying their hands. Now the Washington Post reports that Fairfax County Executive Anthony Griffin and the Board of Supervisors are considering broadening local powers by changing Fairfax’s status from a county to a city. By becoming a city, Fairfax would obtain broader powers to tax itself for things such as transportation improvements — sidestepping the horrendous political gridlock that has bedeviled the Kaine Administration over transportation funding.

I don’t understand the intricacies of Dillon’s Rule and home rule states, but I do know that our neighbor Arlington County has been one of the country’s innovators for smarter growth. If the main issue is getting more taxing authority, especially concerning transportation, I’m closer to the rabid libertarians — deeply suspicious that government will do good things with the extra money. Poorly coordinated transportation and land use decisions, exemplified by the debacle that is Tysons Corner, and not a lack of funding, are at the root of our traffic nightmare.

Posted in smart growth, Taxes, Transit, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Retrofitting suburbs

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on June 5, 2009

A great new book provides hope as well as urgency that our suburbs can and must be redesigned for a sustainable future. Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, by architecture scholars Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, looks at dozens of large-scale retrofit projects of malls and other suburban spaces. These include:

  • Cathedral City, California, where the land uses along the arterial highway have been rezoned and the street has begun to be tamed to allow for safer crossings
  • Mizner Park, Florida, a highly successful pedestrian- and public-space oriented redevelopment of a failed mall in Boca Raton
  • Mashpee Commons in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, another failed mall redevelopment with quirky small lots — also very economically successful

These are first-hand case studies loosely informed by a somewhat vague thesis that “incremental urbanism,” an organic view of how cities should evolve bit by bit — based on how successful cities have evolved in the past — must give way to a more fundamental centralized mode of change characterized by large-scale suburban face-lifts spearheaded by private-public partnerships. That is, Jane Jacobs gives way to Robert Moses-style suburban renewal. Almost all of the case studies are characterized by development partnerships where the redesigned spaces are turned over to either a private property manager or a private-public partnership such as a Business Improvement District. The serendipitous accretion of densely mixed, diverse uses and assets that Jane Jacobs saw in great cities was, as she pointed out, inapplicable to other kinds of settlements such as suburbs. And the authors seem to be arguing in their introduction that suburbs can’t and shouldn’t develop this way — for all our well justified fear of centrally planned monolithic settlements, suburban retrofits need to be large-scale with a “man behind the curtain” to work.

The main virtue of the book, though, is not the thesis but the richly detailed first-hand looks at these redesigned places and intelligent analyses. The case studies have a healthy dose of skepticism about, for example, the trend toward detached “lifestyle centers.” At the same time, the authors recognize that places like lifestyle centers, i.e. faux town centers, have become established real estate products and can, with some adaptation, become functional communities where people can live, do errands and enjoy themselves.

Posted in Malls, smart growth | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Malls in transition

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on June 4, 2009

Springfield Mall. Courtesy labelscar.com, "Caldor"

Springfield Mall. Courtesy labelscar.com, "Caldor"

Just a five-minute drive from our Fairfax City neighborhood are two shopping centers whose anchor tenants have either closed up shop or are distinctly underperforming. You can find places like this throughout Fairfax County.  Some shopping centers, such as in Bailey’s Crossroads, have reinvented themselves as new residents have moved in and established new businesses serving changing clienteles. But many others are in decay. Their anchor tenants have either left or are distinctly on the ropes, and their vast parking lots are half empty on the busiest days.

Yesterday I visited Fairfax’s poster child for mall-gone-bad, the Springfield Mall. Vornado, the mall’s owner, has been working with the county to rezone the mall so they can build more stores and a hotel. The plan, which is near approval, calls for filling most of the surface parking inside the mall area with a street grid and green space, and placing new buildings close to the street for better pedestrian access.

The mall is within walking distance of the Springfield-Franconia Metro station, but it is a very unpleasant walk along Frontier Drive, across two wide streets and along the auto-oriented station access road. Just across the street from the mall are attractive apartments built by Archstone, but I doubt many residents walk to the mall when they visit. Less attractive are the gated townhomes right behind the apartments, adding to the fortress feeling of the area. The first thing the motoring visitor to the Mall sees, the large Macy’s sign, has faded lettering that Macy’s is evidently in no hurry to refurbish and Vornado is evidently in no hurry to press them to do so.  Granted that Wednesday lunch hour, when I was there, is not the busiest time for any mall,  but I counted fewer than a dozen shoppers on my way from the second floor of Macy’s down to the ground floor food court. I would have probably seen three or four times that many patrons at Tysons Galleria during the same time of day. Commercial tenants include a Gymboree and Oriental Rugs.  At the entrance to the  food court a polo-shirted visor-capped worker tried to get me to try some chicken Teriyaki, and another toothpick sized sample was thrust toward me when I walked past the booth. Give them credit for trying to make it work.

I hope the rezoning increases patronage and foot traffic outside as well as inside the mall area, but this looks like another case of “lifestyle center” development with little organic relation to the assets around the mall — particularly the Metro station. We’ll see.

Posted in Malls, smart growth, Transit-oriented development | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »