Fairfax Suburbanista

Making growth work in Fairfax

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Great, but what about the big picture?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on March 7, 2013

Northern Virginia transportation officials are rightly concerned that new transportation funds bring new expectations from residents for traffic relief. Last week, Post columnist Robert McCartney reflected on his interviews with transportation directors in Fairfax, Arlington, and Prince William Counties on the new regional funds for transportation improvements (read the full article here): “Their comments surprised me. I was expecting an outpouring of gratitude and relief that after 27 years of paralysis, the Virginia legislature had finally approved the money they desperately needed to fund the projects they’ve dreamed of doing. Instead, some of these powerful but unheralded public servants seemed anxious about their newfound riches. If they don’t deliver visible improvements in commuting and travel time, they feared, then voters would erupt over getting nothing in return for the increased taxes and fees.”

McCartney’s column today, though, celebrates a new road project that would have minimal value in reducing traffic congestion. The Manassas Battlefield Bypass has long been pushed in conjunction with the Bi-County Parkway. An ostensible purpose of the bypass is to relieve traffic pressures through the historic battlefield. VDOT has promised to close Route 29 through the battlefield once the bypass is built. McCartney lauds the handshake arrangement that VDOT has made with the park superintendent to close 29 once the bypass and Bi-County Parkway has been built. He implies that opponents are narrowly focused on their property interests and are simply standing in the way of progress.

The bypass is part of a much larger North-South Corridor project that includes the Bi-County Parkway and new road segments extending south to I-95 and north to Leesburg. The North-South Corridor will cost more than $1 billion and doesn’t address the traffic issues afflicting Prince William and Loudoun, which are east-west and not north-south.It would also divert the new regional funds from much more pressing traffic and transit fixes in Fairfax and the inner suburbs.

Preserving the battlefield’s historic character and making it more accessible for visitors is important. It is great that the Battlefield superintendent and VDOT are negotiating a compromise (although it would be better if VDOT actually made the pledge in a binding form). But what happened to the paramount concern with traffic relief that McCartney seemed to hear so loud and clear last week?


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Technical Assistance Award is Great Step Forward

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on December 14, 2012

Fairfax City has been selected as one of twenty-two communities nationwide to receive a free technical assistance workshop from Smart Growth America.  The workshop, to take place in early 2013, will focus on successful development strategies for both the public and private sector that save money, increase revenues, and promote long-term stability. The workshop will include an examination of best practices and a hands-on evaluation of issues facing the City of Fairfax. 

The workshop could hardly come at a better time. The city has new leadership that is taking a more far-sighted approach to future growth. Several new development proposals have been submitted or are in the works. The city is facing a structural deficit and recognizes the need for increased revenue to fund capital improvements and its first-rate public services. The city is also preparing a thorough update of its comprehensive plan. Smart Growth America has an excellent roster of consultants, and will be able to help the city develop a good strategy for addressing future growth. Stay tuned for more information on the workshop.

For more information on the awardees, visit http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/2012/11/21/announcing-the-recipients-of-smart-growth-americas-2013-free-technical-assistance/.

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Layton Hall initial plan looks good, but needs to preserve some affordable units

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on September 22, 2012

At the City Council’s September 18th meeting, the owner of Layton Hall Apartments presented plans to redevelop Layton Hall Apartments as a more compact and pedestrian-friendly community. However, the plans would not preserve any units at current rates, which would drive current residents out of the apartments and probably out of the city.

JCE proposes to replace the current 110 garden-style apartment units with 357 units on seven buildings, four of which would be set close to Layton Hall Drive. All parking would be underneath or behind the residential units. The more compact, street-oriented building design would connect the apartments more organically with nearby Courthouse Plaza and the city’s downtown area.

 The proposal could move very quickly – JCE intends to file its application within the next few weeks. More information about the proposed project can be found at http://fairfax.granicus.com/MetaViewer.php?view_id=2&event_id=81&meta_id=30606

The Mayor and several Council members voiced concerns about the scale and density of the proposal. Given the right design, though, this scale and density could be a big plus for the city.

The rents for the units would range from $1,250 to $1,900 a month – a steep increase from current monthly rents ($1,150 -$1,450). Adding market-rate studio and one-bedroom apartments could help the city attract more young professionals – which would add to the city’s diversity, and could bring more activity to the downtown area. That’s a good thing.

At the same time, the city needs to be more proactive in trying to preserve moderately affordable housing as part of the redevelopment. If the city does not make provisions for preserving some below-market rate housing as it redevelops Layton Hall and other aging apartment stock, it will have several negative effects. The city will become a less diverse place, and residents will likely move further out to the fringes of the region, where housing costs are cheaper.

The city and surrounding region have a large service-based economy, thousands of teachers and administrative staff from George Mason University and public and private schools, in addition to a lot of public sector employees. We need to build housing that is affordable to these people, too.


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Changes are afoot — let’s speed them up!

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on December 7, 2009

Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria has been redesigned to make bicycling and walking safe and pleasant.

Check out Scott Polikov’s excellent article in citiwire.net for an encouraging view of the changes afoot in state transportation departments. Last week the Texas became the first state to adopt the The Institute for Transportation Engineers’ and Congress for the New Urbanism’s Manual for Walkable Urban Thoroughfares as an accepted set of guidelines for street design. Polikov, a Fort Worth-based planner, also commends the Virginia Department of Transportation for its policy to encourage interconnected streets.

Last Tuesday, Charlotte,  North Carolina received a National Award for Smart Growth Achievement for its urban street design guidelines, which it adopted five years ago and has already implemented on 20 streets and at 10 intersections.

Are the dominoes falling, as Polikov suggests? Maybe, but they’re heavy dominoes with a bit of glue underneath each one. Adopting the guidelines is just the first step; Texas now  has to figure out how to incorporate them in the Department of Transportation’s various manuals and programs. State DOTs have layers upon layers of staff expertise and established processes that support more conventional auto-oriented practices.

The  Virginia Department of Transportation is changing, but the changes are not as fast as the pace of change in Fairfax communities. Tysons Corner is  poised to get four rail stations by 2013. Fairfax will need to make Routes 7 and 123 into more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly boulevards to take advantage of transit and attract businesses along these streets. But VDOT and the Metro Washington Airports Authority’s plans for 7 and 123 have barebones pedestrian accommodations and discourage at-grade crossings for pedestrians. Nor do they have bike lanes.

Following the example  of Texas and adopting the Walkable Urban Thoroughfare guidelines would be a great step for VDOT. So would a program of trainings in “complete street” design practices for VDOT and FCDOT engineers. VDOT and FCDOT could start by focusing trainings for staff working on projects in Fairfax County designated revitalization areas, such as the Richmond Highway Corridor.

Posted in Transportation, Uncategorized, VDOT, Walking | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Get involved in downtown redevelopment — December 8

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on December 3, 2009

Next Tuesday Fairfax City Councilmembers will be discussing the future of George Mason Square in Old Town. George Mason Square is the parcel between Old Lee Highway and University Drive along North Street. The city now owns all this land and is planning a long-overdue facelift.

The work session will be Monday at 5:30 at City Hall. The City Council is not taking public comments at this point. But if you go to the work session you’ll learn what they are considering and have a better opportunity to shape the final plan.

Can you imagine how nice it would be if this mish-mash of parking lots became a central meeting area with benches, bike racks and attractive stores fronting Old Lee and North?

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Transportation money available — where’s Fairfax?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on November 18, 2009

Fairfax is the largest school system in Virginia and maintains one of the largest school bus fleets in the country. But Fairfax has claimed very little available federal money to encourage safer walking and bicyling routes to school. Since 2005 Virginia has received $13 million in federal funds for its Safe Routes to School Program. Fairfax has received less than 1 percent of these funds. As today’s Washington Post reports, leaders are showing interest in encouraging more walking and bicyling to school. An excellent post by FABB puts an even finer edge on this issue. There is money on the table for transportation — Fairfax should be claiming it.

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Make some small plans

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 30, 2009

Silver Spring has made a busy arterial road more transit-oriented and pedestrian-friendly. Photo by Mastery of Maps

Silver Spring has used transit to design more walkable communities along busy arterial roads. Photo by Mastery of Maps.

Fifteen billion dollars is a hard number to forget. That’s how much Fairfax planning staff estimates will be needed for transportation improvements to accommodate future growth in Tysons Corner. Civic groups will wring their hands, and planning commissioners will have more heartburn. But the estimate is a 10,000 foot view that focuses on major capital projects including several that are only peripherally related to Tysons Corner. Looking closer to the ground — literally — could yield more efficiencies.

What if Routes 7 and 123, the major arterial roads along which the rail extension will travel, were redesigned as more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly boulevards? How many car trips would pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design reduce? How much redevelopment right along these roads would more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design encourage, leading to more people living, working and walking or bicycling along this corridor and leaving their cars in the garage (or not having a car at all)? How much money in avoided capital improvements would such design save?

You could ask the same kinds of questions for the internal grid of streets Fairfax wants to build in Tysons. If they are designed right, with pedestrian-friendly features such as bulb-outs and tight curb radii, residents, shoppers, and workers will be much more likely to walk, people will want to live there, and major capital projects needed to accommodate more cars will not be as necessary. They will also create wealth for residents by saving them the high costs of owning and maintaining a car.

ImagineDC pointed in a recent post to Montgomery County’s success in accommodating growth along its Red Line corridor without having to add new freeways. One of the things that Bethesda and Silver Spring have done well is to reinvent their major roads along the Red Line as more pedestrian-friendly streets. Wisconsin Avenue is a great place to walk. Colesville Road is a good place to walk, and getting better.

The current plans for Tysons’ major roads will make cosmetic pedestrian improvements but are focused on getting more cars through. VDOT wants to put dual left turn lanes on Route 7. There will be no bike lanes. Bicyclists and pedestrians will share the sidewalk. The current designs will encourage speed, more car turning movements, longer blocks — and fewer opportunities to cross the street. Those “improvements” will be expensive in more ways than one.

Smaller, and much cheaper tweaks to Routes 7 and 123 will make them more inviting streets, attract more development, and make that development more profitable. Having an above-ground Metrorail is a challenge. But elevated lines in other cities have not gotten in the way of creating good streets where people want to be.

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While Fairfax City fiddles. . .

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 23, 2009

Another new strip mall at Kamp Washington is setting a poor pattern for the redevelopment of Fairfax Boulevard

Another new strip mall at Kamp Washington is setting a poor pattern for the redevelopment of Fairfax Boulevard

Since the Fairfax Boulevard master plan was presented to the City Council two and a half years ago, Fairfax City has approved three major development projects on the west side of the Boulevard near Kamp Washington. All three are variations of a standard suburban strip mall. Parking lots front the buildings. The newest development, pictured at left, will make $2 dry cleaning just a 15-minute walk from my house. But I will never walk there, or to the Starbucks nearby, given the pedestrian-unfriendly design.

Fairfax City’s comprehensive plan is due to be updated this year. The city has not yet published a draft update or announced public meetings. The comprehensive plan is a good opportunity to create more specific, pedestrian-friendly guidelines for the redevelopment of Fairfax Boulevard. It might already be too late to make the west side of the Boulevard pedestrian-friendly. The car-oriented mold set by recent developments will probably be here for the next 20 years. But east of Chain Bridge Road, and on Fairfax Circle, there is still time to plan better.

City Council and Planning Commission members have expressed skepticism about adopting a form-based code for the Boulevard, one of the recommendations of the master plan. Their skepticism is not unwarranted. Form-based codes can become just as cumbersome as orthodox zoning, with myriad details that can get in the way of good development. But this shouldn’t get in the way of adopting simple, clear guidelines for Boulevard redevelopment, including:

  • Buildings should be oriented toward the sidewalk and have entrances on the sidewalk
  • The ground floors of buildings should be transparent, providing a more pleasant and diverting pedestrian environment
  • Sidewalks should be widened to at least 10′
WholeFoods Clarendon

Whole Foods' Arlington store looks good from the sidewalk.

This doesn’t have to be a tome. We just need a stronger framework so we can get better development. And we need it fast, before more development gets in the pipeline. Let’s hope the city gets the comprehensive plan update underway soon — and when they do, make sure to speak out for strong, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly guidelines for Fairfax Boulevard.

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Suburbanizing Old Town

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on September 3, 2009

Downtown Fairfax doesn't need more of this

Downtown Fairfax doesn't need more of this

Instead of condominiums, Fairfax City is poised to move forward with a suburban townhouse development in Old Town. Residential development on the lot formerly occupied by the city library has long been part of Fairfax’s plans for a lively downtown with more feet on the street outside lunch hour. Walnut Street Development had received approval to build 80 condominium units, but then backed out as the condo market soured. In April 2009 the city issued a new Request for Proposals for the site. RFP guidelines included a minimum size of 2,500 square feet per residential unit and minimum parking of 2-2.33 spaces per unit.

The winning development proposal did a good job of fitting within the framework of the RFP. “Madison Mews” will put 26 homes and 64 parking spaces on the lot, a major downscaling of the original plan. Instead of connecting pedestrians and bicyclists to downtown Fairfax, the development will dead-end and have only one entry and exit point on the opposite end. It’s designed to make it easy for residents to drive out of downtown and get on I-66. It doesn’t encourage residents to walk or bicycle to Old Town destinations, even though they will be a five-minute walk away.

Several people at the Tuesday meeting expressed dismay with the plan. “If you want to keep downtown sick, this is the way to kill it,” one resident remarked. To survive and thrive, local businesses need more residents who are looking for a more urban environment, one local landowner observed. “The density is grossly inadequate to revitalize downtown.”

Unfortunately, the proposal fits within current zoning. The next step is a site plan. The city could at least incrementally improve the project by requiring the developer to provide pedestrian and bicycle access on the southern edge of the development facing downtown.

Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments »

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 »