Facts trump emotion as Fairfax approves Penn Daw plan
In spite of fierce objections from some neighbors, the Fairfax County Planning Commission unanimously supported a plan to revitalize the Penn Daw area along Route 1. But vehement opposition suggests that future redevelopment in the corridor will continue to be difficult.
Penn Daw Plaza is a typical 1960s neighborhood strip mall, located about ½-mile south of the Huntington Metro. The one-story, 126,000 square foot center is set far back from the street, with a large surface parking lot, no sidewalks, and limited landscaping.
When the anchor tenant, Shoppers Food Warehouse, closed in 2010, the center became a target for revitalization. Developers Combined Properties and Insight Property Group came forward with mixed-use development plans for adjacent sites featuring 4-5 story buildings with ground level retail, apartments, and public spaces.
In response to these proposals, Fairfax County authorized a special study to examine the area's potential for revitalization. The county appointed a citizen task force and funded a market analysis and a traffic study.
Penn Daw's relationship to the Huntington Metro. Image from Fairfax County Department of Planning & Zoning.
The task force began its work in December 2010. They met monthly for the next 16 months, and staged 3 public hearings. As the process evolved, planners generated a binder full of data pointing to a series of related conclusions:
- The community is concerned about the ongoing decline of Penn Daw and wants to attract better retailers to the area.
- The retail market no longer supports either the volume or the layout of the area's existing retail space.
- There is unmet demand for high quality, multifamily residential development in the market area.
- Several intersections in and around the study area have existing traffic congestion and safety concerns.
- Surrounding residential streets need to better accommodate pedestrians.
At the end of the process, the task force drafted a plan to replace the area's single-use, auto-oriented pattern with up to 735 apartment units and about 40,000 square feet of urban scale retail space.
Some local residents spoke out against the proposed plan with concerns about increased cut-through traffic and the potential loss of community-serving businesses. Others went a step further and openly challenged the veracity of the planners working on the project.
Some opponents simply did not believe the results of the market or traffic studies. They suggested that the consultants either didn't know what they were doing or were somehow compromised. This group seemed believe that there was demand for retail at Penn Daw, and that the applicants were holding out on signing leases with potential retail tenants in order to push mixed-use projects.
While the charge about greedy developers lying to make money is as old as planning itself, at multiple public hearings one resident after another stood up and made a number of other emotionally driven claims. But the facts refute each of the opponents' fears.
- Fear: Residential development would cause worse traffic problems than retail development. Reality: Retail uses typically generate far more traffic per square foot than residential, a fact highlighted by the county's traffic study.
- Fear: The apartments wouldn't really be luxury, and would actually attract large, low-income families, causing overcrowding in schools. Reality: The two proposed apartment buildings are conceived as consisting of urban-style units that expressly appeal to young professionals and empty nesters.
- Fear: Development would gridlock neighborhood streets and lead to children being killed by speeders. Reality: It is directly contradictory to simultaneously claim that traffic will become gridlocked, and that there will be so many speeders that children's lives become endangered.
- Fear: There isn't enough market demand for apartments, so mixed-use development will end up a vacant slum. Reality: In the current economy, it's extremely unlikely a non-viable project would receive funding from money lenders.
- Fear: The developers would make more money by building fewer units. Reality: Given the high costs of demolishing existing buildings, preparing sites for redevelopment, and navigating such a lengthy and contentious planning process, a large number of units are needed to justify proceeding with the projects.
In the end, the county Planning Commission was not swayed by the dissenters' pleas and voted unanimously in favor of the plan.
In light of such a strong endorsement from the county, it may seem that future revitalization efforts along Richmond Highway will proceed smoothly. While this may prove to be the case, the battle lines are clearly drawn for the next skirmish.
Even if the developments at Penn Daw are successful and new residents do in fact choose to walk and use transit, the overall volume of traffic along Richmond Highway isn't going to shrink anytime soon. Future development proposals are thus likely to generate the same protests and angry reactions from surrounding neighborhoods.
While the commission voted based on the recommendations of a citizen task force and two technical studies rather than the emotionally charged opposition, planners can learn from the Penn Daw process in two key ways.
First, planners and developers need to be very proactive about engaging and educating citizens. And second, development projects should take place within the framework of a comprehensive transportation plan, so that residents cannot blame individual developers for existing and longstanding traffic problems.
- Bikeshare is a gateway to private biking, not competition
- Latest Metro map drafts add Anacostia parks and other tweaks
- Short-term Washingtonians deserve a voice, too
- DC Council makes major policy changes overnight
- Judge denies injunction against closing schools
- Public land deals have both benefits and pitfalls
- Parklets give every block a little park