Fairfax Suburbanista

Making growth work in Fairfax


Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on November 16, 2009

It doesn’t sound as good as HUD — but really, shouldn’t our federal housing program be called HSD: Housing and Suburban Development? That thought is prompted by the above-the-fold editorial in today’s Washington Post. “The FHA’s nose dive” takes the Federal Housing Administration to task for propping up the single-family housing market through imprudent mortgage insurance policies.  Meanwhile, Congress has authorized a $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers. It seems that our economy is addicted to the credit cycle that is set in motion by the “purchase” of a home. And the land for those homes is in the suburbs.

Our local zoning laws already make it hard enough to build apartments. Fairfax City has an explicit “move up” housing policy that discourages the production of apartments. Well over 70 percent of Fairfax County’s housing stock consists of single-family homes or townhouses. But they are working in tandem with much larger forces that make single-family homes so much more profitable for developers than apartments. The FHA mortgage insurance policies will cover borrowers who put as little as 3.5 percent down on a house. If they default, the developer has already gotten his money. The bank gets its money. The buyer’s credit is ruined. We pick up the tab.

Apartment dwellers should be up in arms. They are subsidizing a massive public housing program. This has been going on for over 60 years. But now it is getting even more extreme.  FHA’s reserves have shrunk to less than 1 percent of the total loans it insures. China and the US’s economies are said to be joined at the hip; the one cannot prosper without propping up the other. Is the same true of our economy and the continued production of single-family housing?


Posted in Affordable homes | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Getting across the street

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on November 10, 2009

Rte 7 ped

Route 7 near Seven Corners has many pedestrians, no sidewalks and no safe crossings

If you live in Fairfax and want to walk or bicycle to the 7-11, your job or to your child’s school, chances are you will have to cross a major road. To bicycle to our son’s elementary school, we have to cross both Route 236 and Route 50, plus a busy secondary road, Jermantown Road. During peak hours Route 236 and 50 have many turning vehicles and short walk cycles. The crosswalks are poorly lit, increasing the risk of collisions with pedestrians.

But these crosswalks are still a lot safer than on many other arterial roads in Fairfax County. Twenty two pedestrians were killed on Route 1 between 1995 and 2005, according to a 2008 report by the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Eleven pedestrians were killed on Route 7.  A lot of people live along these streets, and many of them don’t drive. Yet the streets lack sidewalks, lighting and safe crossings.

Virginia ranks last among states in spending on pedestrian and bicycle projects per capita, according to a report released yesterday by Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership. The report,  Dangerous by Design: Solving the Epidemic of Preventable Pedestrian Deaths (and Making Great Neighborhoods), looks at pedestrian spending and safety, using a “pedestrian danger index” that computes the rate of pedestrian deaths relative to the amount of walking the residents do on average. For safety, the Washington area ranks 32nd among the largest 52 metro areas  (with 52 being the least dangerous) — better than many Sunbelt areas that have been mostly built in the age of the automobile, but worse than Virginia Beach and many comparable metro regions.  A 2008 report by the Coalition for Smarter Growth ranked Fairfax as the most dangerous county in the region for pedestrians, based on the same pedestrian danger index.

Fairfax County  recognizes the problem and is investing millions of dollars in better pedestrian design on its most dangerous roads. Earlier this year the $8 million Patrick Henry pedestrian bridge opened on Route 50 near Falls Church. But this may not be the best design solution.  Steven Offutt’s great post on the bridge showed that most pedestrians still cross on the street. Ultimately, the street itself has to be made more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.

Making these roads complete streets that are safe and convenient for all users will require a major overhaul of VDOT’s current approach. VDOT does have a policy requiring routine accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists as part of any major road construction and maintenance project. But sidewalks and bike lanes, however important, are only parts of complete streets. There are many tools such as bulb-outs, pedestrian refuge islands, express bus lanes and tighter curb radii that would correct the balance toward pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users.

There is no better place to use these tools than at Tysons Corner. If we don’t build complete streets on Routes 7 and 123, the success of transit-oriented development at Tysons will be limited. Will VDOT and other agencies involved in the redesign of these roads show more flexibility in making them pleasant and safe for walking and bicycling?

Posted in Bicycling, Central Fairfax, Fairfax Boulevard, Fairfax City, Transportation, Tysons Corner, VDOT, Walk to school, Walking | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Old Lee Highway: Fairfax’s Gold Coast?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on November 5, 2009


The Sherwood Community Center will be a 4 minute bike ride from Old Town

George mason Sq3

The city is also planning to redevelop this patchwork of parking lots and older buildings into a public plaza

Just about a 10-minute walk from one another are two city projects that could help shift energies and activity from our malls to more genuine public spaces. George Mason Square in Old Town is bookended by two parking lots on North Street, with two old buildings and Kitty Pozer Garden in between. The city owns the parcel and will be seeking a development partner to reinvent this space as a public plaza with shops fronting Old Lee Highway. One enterprising citizen has started a Facebook group to organize support for a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly project.

Further down Old Lee, the Sherwood family has made a donation to the city that will allow it to build a community center in Van Dyck Park. Among other features, the community center will include bicycle racks with kid-friendly designs, including a potential bike-a-saurus rack.

George Mason Square could become a great “third place” where people could go to read the paper, talk to a friend, play chess, blow on their harmonica, or just watch the people go by. Kids could walk or bicycle to the Community Center and hang out with their friends without having to get driven around by their parents. It’s great that the city is focusing on creating attractive public spaces.

Just as important as the design of the spaces will be connecting these spaces so people can easily get to them on foot or by bicycle. Let’s say you’re shopping in George Mason Square and your kid wants to go the playground. Are you going to sit him or her in the backseat of the car and drive to Van Dyck Park, or take a 10-minute walk there, and maybe stop along the way at a redeveloped, pedestrian-friendly Courthouse Square? The latter would be a much more pleasant experience, and will create more business for the city. Or you could bicycle there, which would be much easier if the city striped bike lanes on Old Lee.

Posted in Fairfax City, Public spaces, Walking | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

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 .

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

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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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 »

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.

Posted in Fairfax City, Planning, Walking | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

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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What are we getting for $5,000,000,000?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 15, 2009

The Springfield Interchange. Photo courtesy bankbryan, <div xmlns:cc="http://creativecommons.org/ns#" about="http://www.flickr.com/photos/bankbryan/326714624/"><a rel="cc:attributionURL" href=

The Springfield Interchange. Photo courtesy bankbryan, http://www.flickr.com/photos/bankbryan/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

With so much discussion focused on getting more money for transportation, a little perspective is helpful. As Ashley Halsey III reports in today’s Washington Post, Northern Virginia has $5 billion in transit and road projects currently under construction.  But this $5 billion, all agree, will do little to ease congestion or shorten commutes. As every motorist knows, the traffic delays from constructing the projects are themselves considerable. The Springfield Interchange improvements may never recover all the lost time in traffic caused by the project in the first place.

Land use is the elephant in the room, and Halsey sees it — unlike the Post’s editors. More efficient, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly land use, focused near transit stations and along corridors with some semblance of a pedestrian infrastructure, such as Routes 1, 7, 236, is the only way that Fairfax will be able to address its transportation crisis. It will certainly take money to make the improvements needed to redevelop these areas, upgrade their infrastructure, put in more efficient street grids, and even, in some cases, widen roads to accommodate increased traffic. The formidable planning apparatus being rolled out to retrofit Tysons Corner gives a sense of just how difficult and expensive — and necessary — this will be.

The problem is that there’s been little coordinated analysis, planning or funding for these needed land use and transportation improvements. Atlanta, despite its well deserved reputation for dysfunctional land use, has a robust Livable Centers Initiative that prioritizes $500 million in transportation funds for communities that are making innovative land use decisions. While the Washington area has  some helpful programs to encourage greater coordination of transportation and land use, it lacks a strong tool such as this. The Coalition for Smarter Growth’s Blueprint for a Better Region provides a great vision for development around the region’s transit assets. We need a program with strong funding incentives to make this vision happen.

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Will the candidates talk about priorities?

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on October 12, 2009

As Senator Creigh Deeds and Attorney General Robert McDonnell get set to square off in tonight’s gubernatorial debate in Richmond, they will be once again be asked how they will raise more money for transportation. That’s the wrong question. There will never be close to enough money for the wish list of transportation projects promoted by Northern Virginia’s road and sprawl development lobby. The transportation discussion needs to change its focus from money to priorities.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Piedmont Environmental Council are trying to reorient the discussion, asking the candidates to describe their plans for reforming the state’s process of planning, selecting, and funding transportation projects.

The Coalition and PEC identify several principles that should guide transportation investments, including:

  • Revitalizing existing communities.  Redevelopment in Virginia’s cities, towns and older communities will allow the private sector to partner with the state in replacing aging roads, water, sewer and other infrastructure, while reducing the amount that Virginians have to drive.
  • Designing communities to be mixed-use, mixed-income, walking and bicycling-friendly, and transit-oriented to reduce commute distances, improve access to jobs and services, and reduce energy use.
  • Focusing on repair and replacement of existing roads, transit, and other infrastructure.  The state has a $3.7 billion backlog of structurally deficient bridges, yet VDOT proposes an $11.4 billion expansion of I-81 – most of it to 8 lanes; an approach that is unaffordable.
  • Directing spending to better local street networks that more safely accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists and support mixed-use development.
  • Tying economic development incentives to companies that locate in cities, towns and/or adjacent to high-capacity transit; and for industrial facilities and distribution centers that locate adjacent to freight rail lines.

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