Fairfax Suburbanista

Making growth work in Fairfax

Archive for the ‘Transit-oriented development’ Category

Tame this street

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on November 2, 2009

use thisFairfax County has done a nice job of planning the mix of buildings fronting Prosperity Avenue near the Dunn Loring Metro. The problem is Prosperity Avenue. It is too wide, and an 8-minute walk separates the two pedestrian crossings. The crosswalk at the US Immigrations and Custom Enforcement office is unsignalized. The county formerly had in-street crosswalk signs at this crosswalk, which were effective in getting motorists to yield to pedestrians. Without any signal or signs alerting motorists to the presence of pedestrians and their legal responsibility to yield at crosswalks, the intersection is now harder to cross.

The county has approved redevelopment plans on the other side of Prosperity, where the station is. The surface parking lot will be replaced by stores, giving residents on the newly urban Merrilee Drive and along the other side of Prosperity some places to walk to besides Merrifield Town Center. But residents are more likely to leave their cars in the garage if the county and VDOT design improvements to make Prosperity safer to cross, such as bulb-outs and a new traffic signal .

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Boulevard, or auto sewer?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on September 25, 2009

This is a boulevard?

This is a boulevard?

When you take the future Silver Line to Tysons Corner, chances are you’ll end up walking along either Leesburg Pike or Chain Bridge Road. All of the four planned Metro stations will be on either Leesburg or Chain Bridge. They will be the most important streets in a redeveloped Tysons Corner. For Tysons to become a real place, people on these streets will need to feel comfortable  bicycling, walking, sitting with a friend and drinking coffee, window-shopping and doing the many other things that support a vibrant urban environment.

Fairfax County’s draft comprehensive plan for Tysons Corner recognizes the importance of redesigning these pedestrian- and bicycle-unfriendly roads.  Complete streets principles are honored in theory. But the proposed design will not create a more  inviting environment for people who want to experience the pleasures and amenities of a city. Above is one of the proposed “Boulevard” cross-sections for Chain Bridge Road  and Leesburg Pike. There would be four car travel lanes in each direction and a median. A tree buffer is planned between the sidewalk and the road. The local service lanes that currently exist on Leesburg Pike would be eliminated. These currently serve slower-moving traffic and are good for bicycling. There are no bicycle lanes.

Arlington has more created complete streets to complement transit, such as here at Courthouse. Photo courtesy digitaldefection, http://www.flickr.com/photos/digitaldefection/

Arlington has created complete streets to complement transit, such as here at Courthouse. Photo courtesy digitaldefection, http://www.flickr.com/photos/digitaldefection/

The median will be literally overshadowed by above-ground Metro tracks. That will make it even harder to redesign Leesburg and Chain Bridge as complete streets. In fact, the major players in the rail project — including the Metro Washington Airports Authority, VDOT, Washington Metro and Fairfax County — seem resigned to the rail corridors becoming dark, impersonal and pedestrian-unfriendly places where the only safe crossings will be the station bridges. That’s certainly the impression given by the latest visual renderings.  SAIC, which is moving its national headquarters to Tysons, is planning to build its own bridge to get employees across Leesburg Pike.

Isn’t there a better way to balance concerns about traffic flow and accommodating the Metro rail with creating a more pleasant urban environment?   In Arlington, the major thoroughfares on the Rosslyn-Ballston transit corridor carry a lot of traffic but also include on-street parking and bike lanes. Let’s hope we can find a better design for these key streets in Tysons.

Posted in Bicycling, Transit-oriented development, Tysons Corner, VDOT | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Getting Tysons right

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on September 15, 2009

Will Tysons Corner become a real place, with a mix of homes and shops, restaurants and offices that people can walk to? The debate about density reported in today’s Washington Post is important. But it shouldn’t be the only issue.

As the Post’s Lisa Rein reports, Fairfax County planning staff are recommending densities for a redeveloped Tysons Corner that are lower than those recommended by the Tysons Land Use Task Force, a group of Tysons landowners and local civic leaders that created a vision document for Tysons Corner last year. There would be fewer people living and working right near the four planned Metro stations if the staff recommendations were implemented. That could discourage developers looking to build well designed, truly transit-oriented urban buildings and places. The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington has very dense office and residential developments right next to the Metro stations, and density greatly tapers off the farther you get from the stations. The staff recommendations would have much lower maximum densities near the stations.

Planning staff say that you can create a walkable and livable place at the densities they recommend, with buildings set close to the street and a vibrant urban environment. Higher densities, they suggest, will require more transportation infrastructure to move so many people around — including extremely expensive large-scale highway and road improvements. The companies that own the land closest to the four Metro stations naturally want as much density as they can get, and want the higher densities envisioned by the Tysons Land Use Task Force.

To put things in perspective, the staff recommendations still would leave Tysons Corner with more office, retail and housing space than the planned full build-out of Arlington’s Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, which is roughly the same size. The main questions should be, “How will this space be allocated?” and “How will the buildings and surrounding streets be designed?” Arlington’s success suggests that you can develop extremely densely on the land closest to the Metro stations without increasing traffic. Traffic in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor has not increased, because so many more people are walking, bicycling, and using transit.

There may actually be no “magic formula” for the right density levels. But higher density near transit does not mean more traffic, if the buildings and streets are well designed. Will the major thoroughfares such as Route 7 and International Boulevard be designed so that they are easier to walk across and bicycle on? Will they be designed so that people actually want to walk there?

Posted in Transit-oriented development, Tysons Corner | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Big Government, Limited Choices

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on August 17, 2009

Fairfax City's "step-up" housing policy has encouraged gated communities like Chancery Square.

Fairfax City's "step-up" housing policy has encouraged gated communities like Chancery Square.

This past Saturday’s Wall Street Journal has a great article on the need to reduce the huge government subsidies for homeownership and encourage the production of homes and apartments for rent. If you want to expose “Big Government,” look no further than the array of subsidies, loan guarantee programs and local zoning laws that have been developed over the past 75 years to encourage homeownership, drive up the cost of housing and stimulate real estate speculation. As author Thomas Sugrue writes, “The story of how the dream [of homeownership] became a reality is not one of independence, self-sufficiency, and entrepreneurial pluck. It’s not the story of the inexorable march of the free market. . . . We are a nation of home-owners and home speculators because of Uncle Sam.”

Now that we’ve come down to earth, will housing and land use policies change to enable developers to produce homes that people can afford? Fairfax County has a starkly limited housing market consisting of wide swaths of “single-family” neighborhoods, a smattering of garden and high-rise apartments, and townhouses. Fewer than one in every five homes in the county is a rental unit. One reason that families pool their resources to buy or rent in “single-family” neighborhoods mainly is that they cannot find affordable, convenient places to rent.

Retooling our secondary mortgage institutions to help people find homes that they can really afford without “easy” credit, and without “driving to qualify” is mind-bogglingly complex. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is taking steps toward a more balanced housing policy that provides more funding for rental housing. But there are local forces at work too. Fairfax City’s housing policy explicitly encourages less affordable housing and the production of more expensive homes to match the high median income of its residents. Officials say that the city already has more rental units in proportion to overall housing stock than the county does, which is true, although the difference is small and becoming even smaller. But the real estate “market” — however artificial — is already working hard enough to stimulate over-expensive housing, even with the real estate bust, and zoning codes already discourage more rental housing.

Local housing policy should not add even more deterrents to building affordable homes. Instead, the county and city should be looking at increasing rental housing in commercial corridors like Fairfax Boulevard and Route 1 where people can more easily use transit and reduce their transportation costs — the second highest average household cost behind housing.

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Connecting the dots

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on August 7, 2009

Fairfax County’s fragmented street network is a big reason why getting from one place to another — by car, bike, on foot, or any other means — is so stressful. A case in point is the new Merrifield development (pictured above left). The shops, restaurants and apartments at Merrifield Town Center are within easy walking and bicycling distance of the homes and offices on and near Arlington Boulevard. They are also within easy walking and bicycling distance of the Dunn-Loring metro station. But both Dunn-Loring and Arlington Boulevard have inefficient street systems that funnel all traffic to major roads.

As part of the Merrifield rezoning, Merrilee Drive will be connected to Eskridge Road, which will make it easier for Dunn-Loring residents, office workers and transit users to enjoy the amenities of Merrifield. A thornier problem is to connect Eskridge Road with Williams Drive and Arlington Boulevard. A few properties, including the Four Seasons Tennis Club (pictured on right), separate Eskridge and Williams. The medical staff and other office workers and visitors on Williams Drive are just 10 minutes away from Merrifield Town Center by foot — and within bicycling distance of the Dunn-Loring station — but private properties, a parking lot and a fence separate them. That just funnels more car traffic onto Arlington Boulevard, Gallows Road, Prosperity Drive and the Beltway.

Fairfax County looked closely into connecting Eskridge and Williams as part of the Merrifield rezoning, but stopped short when many property owners opposed it. But even if a connecting road cannot be built, one would think that the county could work with property owners to acquire easements for a trail connecting the two roads. It would be good for business in Merrifield, connect the many residents and workers in this area with amenities, and reduce the traffic burden on the roads.

Posted in Bicycling, Transit-oriented development, Transportation, Walking | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Getting across the street

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 28, 2009

Wide curb radii are barriers to safe walking in Fairfax

Wide curb radii are barriers to safe walking in Fairfax

Development of the Merrifield Town Center near the Dunn-Loring metro station area is moving along, offering Fairfaxites a needed whiff of walkability and more urban living. Steve Kattula’s excellent Greater Greater Washington post looked at the transportation and urban design elements of the first, completed phase of the Town Center. As Kattula and several respondents pointed out, Route 29 and Gallows Road are major barriers between the area and the nearby transit station.

The curb radii at Gallows Road and Strawberry Lane are a case in point. The wider the curb radii, the earlier and faster a motor vehicle can make right turns, and the longer a pedestrian has to travel to cross. These curb radii (pictured at left) are extremely wide, and vehicles are turning into and out of the development without stopping or looking for pedestrians. It is no wonder that the only people I saw during my fifteen minutes there were four worried pedestrians planning their mad dash and two men holding up signs for the new gym club.

Wide curb radii are ubiquitous in Fairfax. Even neighborhood streets often have very wide radii, and you even find them in one of the county’s most walkable areas, Reston Town Center. The need to allow trucks and buses to turn safely is often cited to justify wider curb radii. But communities have successfully squared off intersections to make crossing safer, and Fairfax can do it too — and should be doing it, especially in areas near transit.

Even Reston Town Center makes things too easy for drivers, and harder for pedestrians

Even Reston Town Center makes things too easy for drivers, and harder for pedestrians

Posted in Transit-oriented development, Transportation, Uncategorized, Walking | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Want to walk or bike to rail? Tell Metro

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 23, 2009

Even those of us in Fairfax lucky enough to live within walking or bicycling distance of a Metro rail station often choose to drive. The roads can be difficult to cross and have fast moving traffic intimidating to many bicyclists, and sidewalks are often missing.

If you have ideas about how to improve conditions for walking and bicycling, let Metro know by responding to its online questionnaire. Metro is doing a study of pedestrian and bicycle access that will feed into recommended improvements and projects for its 10-year capital needs program. At last night’s workshop at the Metro headquarters, the project consultants, Toole Design, presented the initial outline of the study. Toole is a highly respected consulting firm that helped the county with the excellent Fairfax County bike map. The project manager, Dan Goodman, bicycles to the Metro — a prerequisite for doing good bike planning.

Both Franconia-Springfield and Vienna are priority station areas in the study, where Metro will be looking to make relatively small, “bang for the buck”  improvements that can increase bicycle and walking trips. If you’ve tried to walk — or drive, for that matter — to the Franconia-Springfield station, you know how poor the access is there. This is the paradigm for brutalist transit design. The area is going to have stunning growth, mainly because of military base realignment, which could be an opportunity to redevelop its pedestrian- and bicycle-unfriendly streets. Approval of the redevelopment of the Springfield mall is imminent, which will help, although the nearby arterial roads will remain barriers to good access.

The Vienna station has a lot of things going for it, especially the Metrowest project, and Metro’s focus on strategic improvements is one more good sign. But the glacial pace of the Metrowest development is frustrating. Although it was approved more than three years ago, ground has not yet been broken. The residential developer, Pulte Homes, is having the same trouble finding money from lenders as most other developers.

Even with the eventual development of Metrowest, the station area could still become just an oasis of walkability surrounded by the pedestrian and bicycle deserts of Nutley Street and Route 29. Getting the Virginia Department of Transportation on board with changes to these roads is important to improving pedestrian and bicycle access. This is even more important at the future stations in Tysons Corner. It’s also important for making the Merrifield development work near the Dunn-Loring station, where Route 29 and Gallows Road form barriers between the growing numbers of residents and the Metro station.

Will Metro’s study address these more systemic issues? To what extent can the study foster better coordination with Fairfax County and VDOT to improve these obscenely wide roads and make them safer for walking and bicycling?

Posted in Bicycling, Transit, Transit-oriented development, VDOT, Walking | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Tysons plan under review: Send your comments

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 10, 2009

Will the Tysons plan tame Rtes. 123 (pictured here at Scotts Crossing), Leesburg Pike and International Boulevard?

Will the Tysons plan tame Rtes. 123 (pictured here at Scotts Crossing), Leesburg Pike and International Boulevard?

The Comprehensive Plan for the redevelopment of Tysons Corner is being refined and public comments are due next Friday, July 17. One key to successful redevelopment will be taming Route 123 and Route 7 so that pedestrians and bicyclists can navigate them safely. All four planned Tysons Metrorail stations are located on either 123 or 7 (the picture shows the site of the Tysons West station), but currently both roads are highly forbidding to pedestrians and bicyclists. Yet the Virginia Department of Transportation’s plans for Route 7 have minimal pedestrian facilities — a 6-foot sidewalk — and would make bicycling even worse than on the old Route 7 by eliminating the service roads and providing no suitable replacement for local traffic or for bicyclists.

The “Straw Man” Comprehensive Plan has street design guidelines for the secondary streets and includes plans for an internal street grid, which will be critical steps forward to making Tysons more walkable and bicycle-friendly. But the elephant in the room are Routes 7 and 123, and the plan needs to address this. VDOT’s designs  are overwhelmingly focused on moving more automobiles. Yet it will be hard to achieve truly transit-oriented development unless these two streets are designed to encourage street-level activity. Do you really want to shop or meet your friends at a place where you get off the station and have to sweat just to cross the street?

The Comprehensive Plan language that is adopted will strongly guide future rezonings, so it’s imperative to get needed language inserted now.

Posted in Bicycling, Transit, Transit-oriented development, Transportation, Tysons Corner, VDOT, Walking | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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.

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