Posts by Douglas Stewart
|Douglas Stewart is a nonprofit consultant and smart growth advocate in Fairfax County. He also writes about land use and transportation issues at Fairfax Suburbanista. Douglas has worked on land use and transportation reform since 1999, most recently as development and communications director with 1000 Friends of Maryland.|
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 designed more to move traffic than for your safety.
Route 7 near Seven Corners has many pedestrians but few sidewalks or safe crossings. Photo by the author.
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 Tuesday 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). That's 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. The Coalition for Smarter Growth's 2008 report 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. Steve 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 bring the roads into a better balance toward the needs of 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?
On Tuesday, 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.
The new proposal for Ratcliffe Hall is a familiar pod-style subdivision.
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
Don't let the pretty bricks fool you. This crosswalk in downtown Vienna is no fun if you have to walk on it. Wide curb radii make it much more difficult to cross because a) they lengthen the walking distance, and b) motorists are encouraged to take turns without stopping or looking for pedestrians.
For years Vienna and Fairfax have been trying to revitalize their downtowns and make them more walkable and bicycle-friendly. But there's a big disconnect with conventional traffic engineering wisdom. Getting more automobiles through the road faster trumps everything. Traffic calming measures such as squaring off intersections get in the way of this engineering priority.
One issue is institutional. VDOT controls the roads in Fairfax County.The agency is not accountable to local communities. Local control over roads could lead to more flexible, pedestrian-friendly designs. Although pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design of Routes 7 and 123 will be critical to making Tysons Corner work as a transit-oriented community, VDOT shows little sign of flexibility in its auto-focused approach. This is one reason Fairfax County is looking into taking control of its roads.
But that's not the only issue. Even county and local transportation divisions tend to narrowly focus on automobile "throughput." Engineers are trained to move cars efficiently. Pedestrian and bicycle-oriented features are not familiar concepts to many traffic engineers. Local elected officials hear complaints about traffic all the time, and usually it is from a "windshield perspective." So they, too, are often pressured to look for short-term, auto-oriented solutions rather than a more balanced approach.
In addition, often our elected leaders themselves have a windshield perspective. It can help to take them on walks and bicycle rides to broaden their perspective.
Until a better balance is struck between the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users and motorists, Vienna, Fairfax and other communities will not be able to attract a critical mass of people to revitalize their downtowns. One good step would be for VDOT and local transportation divisions to train all their engineering staff in the Complete Streets approach to street design.
With so much discussion focused on getting more money for transportation, a little perspective is helpful. As Ashley Halsey reported in yesterday's 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.
Earlier this week Fairfax County took the first step toward a bicycle master plan. The County Board of Supervisors approved a motion by Supervisor Jeff McKay directing the staff to study the development of a bicycle plan and provide recommendations for funding and creating the plan.
Fairfax County currently has very few bicycle projects in its countywide transportation plan. Less than 2 percent of the funds in VDOT's Six-Year Transportation Improvement Program for Northern Virginia are for bicycle and pedestrian improvements. If it is not in these plans, it will not get built.
Washington DC approved a bicycle master plan in 2005. Bicycle projects are now integrated in the city's transportation plan, guiding decisions about design and funding for projects. Bicycle use in the city has soared. Without the plan, many bicycle projects would not have gotten into the city's funding and construction pipeline. The bicycle master plan took a lot of work, and some money. But it is paying off.
With the budget constraints, Fairfax County cannot fund a bicycle planning effort. But the approval of a study of a bike plan greases the chain for a bicycle planning process when funding gets less tight. Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling, which has been campaigning for a bicycle master plan, recognized this and worked with Supervisor McKay to get the process started. The District of Columbia used crack consultants to do their bicycle master plan, and the high quality and precision of their work surely has helped legitimize the plan and get it implemented. Still, the county might want to consider getting started with the resources it already has and not wait too long before beginning the plan. Despite the incessant hand-wringing about Virginia's transportation woes, new money for transportation is coming within the next couple years through the federal transportation reauthorization. We need to be prepared with specific bicycle and pedestrian projects to take advantage of the opportunities.
Fairfax City residents have communicated two major concerns about traffic to city planners:
- They don't like all the traffic from other areas pouring through their major streets like 50, 29, and 236.
- They don't like the increasing cut-through traffic in their neighborhoods.
We're going to have to get over this. Unless our local secondary streets are more interconnected and our neighborhoods work more efficiently for vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians, traffic will continue to be funneled to the major roads. Motorists will continue to try to outsmart this system by finding alternate routes through neighborhoods, no matter how circuitous. They will take their frustrations at having to go to such labyrinthine extremes to avoid the chokepoints on the major roads by doing California stops and speeding. This is human nature. Only better planning can solve this problem.
The city has not shown much backbone on this issue. When residents along University Drive complained about increasing traffic, the city spent millions of dollars to close the street to cars and build a new road. University Drive was one of the city's better functioning streets, where cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians coexisted well. Now it is a no-man's land.
The city seems more farsighted in planning the redevelopment of Fairfax Boulevard. The city is studying adding a grid of local streets connected to Fairfax Boulevard. The draft master plan for Fairfax Boulevard recommends key connections such as extending University Drive to Eaton Place. The Virginia Department of Transportation has recently adopted a policy that requires state-maintained secondary streets to be more interconnected. This is a good incentive for localities to better connect new developments and the roads that serve them.
City leaders have inherited an inefficient system of disconnected streets and residential enclaves. Residents are ambivalent: they hate the traffic, but they like the enclosure from the car sewers that our major roads are. We need a more honest dialogue about the trade-offs and real solutions to cut-through traffic.
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
And maybe this, too, is by design. Are these supposed to be real public spaces ó 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.
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.
Downtown Fairfax doesn't need more of this.
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.
Both Fairfax and Prince George's Counties are considering revamping their land use planning processes to make them more transparent and less cumbersome. At their June retreat, the Fairfax Board of Supervisors heard a staff presentation recommending an overhaul of its cumbersome, piecemeal Area Plans Review process. The Washington Post reports that Prince George's is looking at streamlining its development review process, and making it simpler for laypeople to understand how to participate in the process.
If the jurisdictions follow through, this is good politics and even better planning. Land use politics is a minefield, and it can be extremely difficult for well meaning elected officials to make the best decisions for their communities when they face a clamor of angry citizens campaigning against change (think health care reform). Citizens are often left in the dark about development proposals until they have already well advanced. If you can't steer change, you fear it.
Fairfax County has put a lot of effort into engaging citizens on specific development proposals and large-scale projects, such as the redesign of Tysons Corner. But the land use planning process tends to be highly technical and oriented toward landowners rather than citizens. Staff reports on rezonings are long on technical language and short on pictures. Unless you are one of the handful of citizens with the dedication to serve on a land use advisory committee and wade through the meetings and verbiage, your only opportunity to influence the development process is to speak at a public hearing — by which time the outcome has usually already been decided.
Fairfax;s Area Plans Review process exemplifies the problems. Landowners who want to develop their land in ways not currently permitted by zoning generally have to go through an Area Plans Review. Planning staff and citizen advisory committees review the proposals and make recommendations to the Planning Commission. If approved by the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors, the recommendations are incorporated in the comprehensive plan. Then the developer must apply to rezone the land.
But often the process doesn't please anybody. The developer is unhappy because the process takes so long. Citizens are unhappy because the information they receive is packaged abstractly, relating to density, type of usage, and other things that don't really represent to a layperson what the development will do. And the process is not well advertised, so that even the few citizens who do learn of rezoning proposals have little or no influence because the process by then is so far along.
Kudos to Fairfax for looking at a new approach. Here are some recommendations:
- Provide visual representations of different development proposals and possibilities, so citizens can better choose and communicate what they like, and don't like.
- Identify both "off-limits" areas where there will be little or no new development, and areas where new development will be concentrated — such as transit areas and major commercial corridors.
- For priority development areas, get consensus on basic development principles and then provide incentives and a "fast track" for development proposals that meet these principles. Arlington has done this, so can Fairfax.
Fairfax City just enacted a new commercial real estate tax dedicated to transportation, and plans to use the money to facilitate redevelopment on Fairfax Boulevard. The area surrounding Route 123, branded as "Northfax," will be the first priority for large-scale redevelopment. While the plans are still in a very early stage, and redevelopment proposals have not yet even been formally submitted, a dedicated funding source makes it likely that redevelopment in Northfax will move relatively quickly.
The Fairfax Boulevard master plan recommends a "8/10/10/8" design of new local streets: 8 feet for on-street parking on each side, a 10 foot travel lane, and wide sidewalks. The recommended design would resemble the street pictured above, at the Market Commons development in Fair Lakes. It would create a pleasant place to walk, ride your bike, and spend money at local businesses.
It would be great to have new walkable streets in Fairfax City in places that are currently taken up mostly by surface parking. Doing this, though, will be easier than implementing the main aspect of the master plan: taming Fairfax Boulevard itself. The recommendations in the master plan call for a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly boulevard with five travel lanes and two access lanes for local traffic. The "5-2" design would make Fairfax Boulevard a much more pleasant place to walk along. It would also make the street easier to cross, so that local residents could more easily get to places on the Boulevard on foot or bicycle rather than adding to the traffic.
Top: Fairfax Boulevard today. Middle: The Boulevard with the "5-2" design.
Bottom: The 5-2 design plus future street-oriented development.
Images from the Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan.
But the City Council and key developers working in Northfax are skeptical about the 5-2 design. "You want drive-by business," Randy Kenna of Archstone said at a City Council work session last year. Local access lanes, Kenna argued, create an "unwelcome distance" between cars and the retail destinations.
Without a more ambitious redesign of the Boulevard focused on all users, the local streets will be nice places to go... by car. Like Market Commons and many other new developments in Fairfax County, they will be islands of livability surrounded by inhospitable wide roads. Fairfax can and should choose a better route.
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