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Fairfax City is starting to lay down a strong foundation for smarter growth

The City of Fairfax has long struggled to establish a clear vision for future development. Despite a strong master plan for Fairfax Boulevard, the town hasn't established strong guidelines for revitalizing its central commercial corridor. While nearby areas such as Merrifield and Fair Lakes have flourished, Fairfax City's commercial tax base has been stagnant.

Photo by the author.

But the tide has started to turn. Since a new mayor was elected in 2012, Fairfax City has approved 250 new apartment units near its downtown and has started to rewrite its zoning code. Two major redevelopment projects on Fairfax Boulevard are in the queue. The city has also made pedestrian and bicycle projects a higher priority.

Supporters of smarter growth in Fairfax City should be encouraged—and press for more. With elections for mayor and all six city council seats scheduled for May, Fairfax City Citizens for Smarter Growth has released a progress report on the performance of the current mayor and council. They have gotten some important things done, including:

Expanding housing near downtown: Last June the city council approved a pedestrian-friendly redevelopment of Layton Hall apartments. This will bring more residents near downtown and better connect downtown businesses with the apartments and nearby neighborhoods. The project also prompted difficult decisions about housing affordability, which the city is grappling with.

Zoning overhaul: The city has commissioned Duncan & Associates to review and thoroughly update its zoning code. In March the consultants released their initial report, including strong recommendations for enabling mixed-use development.

The redevelopment of Fairfax Circle Plaza is moving through the city's land use review process. The proposal would add 400 apartment units and new retail to the eastern end of Fairfax Boulevard near Vienna, and improve pedestrian and bicycle access between the property and nearby neighborhoods, trails and the Vienna Metro station.

Image from the Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan.

The mayor and council have been laying the foundations, but the heaviest lifting still lies ahead. The city has a lot of catching up to do after allowing the Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan to lie idle while nearby communities, such as Merrifield, built on their foundations of solid planning to spur revitalization. The retail and office markets are extremely competitive. How will the City attract and guide quality redevelopment?

A big part of the answer lies overhauling the city's zoning code. Excessive one-size-fits-all parking standards and the lack of any mixed-use categories are among the vexing elements of the current ordinance. The city will also need to focus on the redevelopment of Northfax at the intersection of 123 and Fairfax Boulevard. Both the zoning rewrite and Northfax are extremely complex processes that will require a lot of political will to see to a successful finish.

The next month is a good time to influence the conversation about future development in Fairfax City. Along with our progress report, Fairfax City Citizens for Smarter Growth has sent a questionnaire to the mayoral and council candidates to gauge their support for smart growth priorities.

Mayor Silverthorne and City Council members are signaling a new receptiveness to compact, walkable, mixed-use development. City voters who want more walkable communities and vibrant public spaces can send their own signal by attending upcoming candidate forums, going to the polls and making informed choices on May 6.

Douglas Stewart is a volunteer with Fairfax City Citizens for Smarter Growth. He also works for the Piedmont Environmental Council as their Grants Specialist, and is the Transportation Chair for the Virginia Sierra Club. 


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Fairfax City has good bones even if the area that's really ripe for take off is small. But they're lucky to have what they have sandwiched between the Vienna Station and GMU. There are lots of opportunities for mixed use though both in old town and along 50/29.

by drumz on Apr 3, 2014 3:33 pm • linkreport

FINALLY! As a "millennial" this is exactly what this City needs to remain competitive. And FX Circle's proximity to transit helps too. Fairfax is lucky to have Mayor Silverthorn leading this charge.

by Chris B. on Apr 3, 2014 4:10 pm • linkreport

Yes. A new Mayor, a fresh message, and the new councilman was enough to push this boulder up hill.
It also sounds like the citizens are not as quiet, or better informed.
My eye is on the quiet, smart one. Demarco is cut from a different cloth and could be doing bigger things. The city is fortunate to have new leadership.

by Local Yokel on Apr 3, 2014 8:37 pm • linkreport

The Town of Vienna is well along in a similar process after many years spent trying to gain traction on what to do along Maple Avenue. The Town Council just voted to send the proposed Maple Avenue Corridor code amendment to their Planning Commission which starts the 100 day review period. The first public hearing with the Planning Commission was last night, though lightly attended. The proposed code was developed over the last year with the active input of a citizen's and business community committee, support of Town staff and consulting team (full disclosure, I am chair of the committee).

The goal of the incentive-based opt-in zoning overlay, " to encourage compact, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use development and redevelopment along the Maple Avenue corridor to reinforce Maple Avenue’s role as the Town’s main street. The zone is intended to ensure that development along the corridor promotes Vienna’s small-town character and does not compromise the character of residential neighborhoods abutting the corridor."

The Planning Commission voted yesterday to continue the public hearing amid members' interest in more detailed information from staff to allay their concerns about increased traffic and economic impact on existing businesses. The Town Council through two earlier work sessions and an agenda item to discuss the referral to the PC have been supportive and have offered important comments to clarify and improve the proposed code.

For reference, detailed information on the process is available here:

More to follow...

by Douglas Noble on Apr 4, 2014 12:02 am • linkreport

P.S. ...and this issue has been mentioned in statements by the multiple candidates running for the contested Town council elections this May. Candidate forums will be interesting on April 8th and 22nd.

by Douglas Noble on Apr 4, 2014 12:07 am • linkreport

It would be nice to better connect the massive County government complex to the restaurants and shops downtown.

by Falls Church on Apr 4, 2014 10:04 am • linkreport

Is there a realistic time frame on any of this?

by jh on Apr 5, 2014 4:44 pm • linkreport

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