Fairfax Suburbanista

Making growth work in Fairfax

Posts Tagged ‘Fairfax City’

Whether it’s DC or Fairfax, everyone should be safe

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on December 11, 2009

A naive person would think that being able to cross a street safely should be a basic right. But even in the most walkable city in the region, it can be a challenge. As Ashley Halsey III reports in today’s Post, the District has finally done something to make new York Avenue Northeast easier and safer to cross without getting stuck in the middle. They’ve retimed the crossing cycle at Bladensburg Road to 30 seconds, which is the amount of time it takes to cross the eight-lane intersection at an average walking pace. During the first day of the new cycle, the District experienced the traffic engineer’s worst nightmare. As Halsey reports, “Wednesday’s evening rush backed up from the intersection to Florida Avenue, 1.8 miles.” The District Department of Transportation is working to adjust the timing while giving pedestrians enough time to safely cross the entire intersection.

Would you feel safe crossing this street, or want to buy your holiday presents here?

When even the region’s core city has to contend with irate motorists to protect the safety of its citizens, it’s a reminder of how far the whole region has to go. In Fairfax City, we’ve taken some forward steps. At Fairfax Boulevard and Walnut Drive, for example, the city has created a dedicated “Walk” cycle with red at all intersections to prevent conflicts between pedestrians and turning vehicles. The city has also re-timed signals at its T-intersection on Chain Bridge Road and Judicial Drive to give pedestrians a dedicated crossing time. But there’s a lot more to be done.

In downtown Fairfax, the Old Lee/North Street intersection must handle huge volumes of east-west traffic while enabling pedestrians to safely cross. The intersection is the center of downtown activity. Main Street Marketplace, the library, and an office complex are on three corners; the future George Mason Square retail redevelopment is on the fourth. Currently the city allots 15 seconds for crossing the intersection. That is a brisk walking pace. It is a better timed signal than it was before the two-way reconfiguration of North and Main Streets, but the city should add at least five seconds to the cycle, allow a diagonal crossing, and reduce the wide curb radius.

Whether it is Fairfax or Washington DC — if cities want to attract people to live and spend their money, they need to make their streets inviting and safe for people on foot.

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Getting to the parking lot

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on November 23, 2009

In-street crosswalk sign at Fair City Mall

Even people who drive for every trip have to cross the street. The motorists cum pedestrians at Fair City Mall now have a safer route to and from the parking lot thanks to the in-street crosswalk signs installed on the mall’s main internal street.

Weekend foot and car traffic is heavy on this street, and getting heavier as the mall brings in popular new stores such as Best Buy. In-street crosswalk signs are very effective in getting motorists to follow the law and yield to pedestrians at unsignalized crosswalks on neighborhood and other smaller streets. The city and the mall made a good move.

This will hopefully lead to the signs being installed at key crosswalks on the city’s public streets. The city has many trail crossings that get a lot of pedestrian and bicycle traffic. The crosswalk at Sager Avenue near Providence Square Condominiums is one example. These would be good candidates for in-street signs.

Posted in Walking | Tagged: , | 6 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

Exterior_CivicGreen

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 »

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 »

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 are  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.

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

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.

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

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 delicatessen  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.

Posted in Planning, Transportation, Walking | 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.

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