Greater Greater Washington

Fairfax Circle takes a step toward urbanism, but it's still an island for now

On Tuesday, Fairfax City approved the city's first major redevelopment project on Fairfax Boulevard. This will bring new residences, a grocery, and pedestrian-oriented spaces to an area that's strip malls and parking lots today. But since the city has no larger plan, the project isn't poised to connect well with future projects or bring all the amenities the city needs.


Fairfax Circle Plaza. Image from Combined Properties.

Seven years ago the city completedbut did not adoptthe Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan, which envisioned denser, pedestrian-friendly mixed-use redevelopment along the three main nodes of the city's main commercial corridor. Fairfax Circle is the eastern node, located within walking distance of the Vienna Metro station and in the midst of a rapidly urbanizing area.


Fairfax Circle. The development is at the top (north side). Image from Bing Maps.

More than 16,000 residents live within one mile of Fairfax Circle Plaza, and many more will be moving into the new apartments and condominiums at MetroWest.

Combined Properties will build two apartment buildings with 400 units, ground-floor retail, and a 54,000 square foot grocery store. In place of a sea of surface parking and a nondescript service drive, the project will provide a pedestrian-friendly frontage road with parallel parking and bulb-outs, a 10-foot path, and a landscaped buffer. The proposal also provides expanded sidewalks and buffers along Pickett Road and Lee Highway.

The project is far from perfect. Because Combined could not consolidate smaller properties on its sides, trucks and other service vehicles will use the main entrance and the pedestrian-friendly streetscape will stop before connecting to Fairfax Circle. The proposal lacks an adequate gathering space, and the amount of permeable, landscaped surface only marginally exceeds what's on the current site.

The lack of affordable housing is a major weakness. During the past year the city has incorporated affordable housing goals in its comprehensive plan, and the mayor has stated strong support for setting aside 5-10% of new development for affordable units.

Combined is providing some below-market units, but refused to provide truly affordable apartments. Instead, it calculated maximum monthly rental rates assuming residents spend 33% of their income on housing rather than the standard 25%, and did not exempt ancillary fees or utilities from the affordability calculations.

As a result, the rent for these apartments approaches that for market-rate units. While many of the councilmembers recognized Combined's proposal isn't adequate, none seriously pushed back from the dais.

Many of the project's shortcomings stem from the fact that Fairfax City still does not have a clear plan for Fairfax Boulevard. An adopted plan that sets forth clear guidelines for street connectivity, green infrastructure, affordable housing and other elements would make the process easier for applicants and more beneficial for the city.

As the city looks to tackle more complex projects elsewhere on the Boulevard, it will need better planning tools. Meanwhile, though, Fairfax Circle will at least take a significant step forward, even if it's a smaller step than it could be.

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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. 

Comments

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In your satellite image, isn't it the bottom left corner and not the top? This development, according to the site plan is north of Fairfax Boulevard, not south.

by jh on May 29, 2014 12:18 pm • linkreport

jh: Hm, that seems right. I've replaced the aerial image.

by David Alpert on May 29, 2014 12:25 pm • linkreport

Great article, Douglas. I generally work in Fairfax City (and not the nice, walkable, historic part) four days a week and would love to see this, and other projects like it, come to fruition. Although I think describing Fairfax Circle as being "within walking distance" of the Vienna Metro is a little misleading - it is an awful, circuitous walk that is probably undertaken by next to no one right now. At least from what I've seen.

You're absolutely right, of course, about the need for a broader master vision for Fairfax Boulevard. I wonder how much of the lack of one has to do with the fact that it would require Fairfax City, Fairfax County, and VDOT (at the very least) to get together and agree on something. Each of those actors likely has different designs, and unfortunately different priorities, for that road.

This seems as good a place as any to share my own "If I were the Czar of NoVa" dream for this area: light rail running down Arlington Boulevard/50 from Rosslyn to Fair Oaks/Fairfax Co. Government Center. What a game changer that could be...*sigh*

by Dizzy on May 29, 2014 12:35 pm • linkreport

I would quibble at the "walkable to vienna" as well but more for the quality of the walk than the distance.

Otherwise, lots of potential right there. Would love to see more.

by drumz on May 29, 2014 12:39 pm • linkreport

"Although I think describing Fairfax Circle as being "within walking distance" of the Vienna Metro is a little misleading"

That was my initial thought, too. But, to my surprise, the walk from the center of the circle to southside Vienna entrance is 1 mile. A little much for a lot of people, but not horrible. Also, Fairfax Circle is a great spot based on current Cue Bus service.

by jh on May 29, 2014 12:44 pm • linkreport

Thats not really the part of vienna that is town/walkable though (atleast not like the "downtown" part of Vienna)

by Navid Roshan on May 29, 2014 1:13 pm • linkreport

"it is an awful, circuitous walk that is probably undertaken by next to no one right now"

I commuted from Fairfax City to Alexandria on my bike whilst at my former employer taking the route through East Blake Lane Park and didn't find it all that bad. In my travels, I did see a good number of people walking along my route as well.

by CyclistinAlexandria on May 29, 2014 1:13 pm • linkreport

While its a far from undoable walk by suburban standards, I think the distance and the conditions (crossing and walking beside traffic sewers, at least part way) will place a cap on the proportion of people who walk to metrorail. Many will make the short drive to the metro parking garage, and its not a bad bike ride either to the metro or to the W&OD. Does begin to reduce the isolate of MetroWest.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 29, 2014 1:19 pm • linkreport

@Navid

Was that in response to me? We're talking about walking from Fairfax Circle to the Vienna Metro Station, not the town of Vienna.

by jh on May 29, 2014 1:28 pm • linkreport

@CyclistinAlexandria

Fair point - the route through East Blake Lane Park is much more pleasant (when it's light out).

by Dizzy on May 29, 2014 1:29 pm • linkreport

I don't get it. It fronts onto a highway AND an access road, and this is the best of Fairfax urbanism?

by LowHeadways on May 29, 2014 1:37 pm • linkreport

Low

no.

A. we are talking about the City of Fairfax, much smaller than the County
B. The best urbanism in the City of Fairfax is the historic old town section
C. Retrofitting around existing roads (note that rtes 29 and 50 are suburban arterials/stroads, not limited access highways) is a necessity. unfortunate or not.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 29, 2014 1:45 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the great article Douglas. It's interesting you point out that Fairfax City never actually adopted the Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan since it is listed on the Fairfax City website under projects and plans. For a newer area resident like myself, this leaves the impression that the City intends to implement this plan, but has possibly been held up by economic factors during the recession.

I wonder what other forces are at work to hold back this plan? With Fairfax Forward currently in the works for the surrounding County, it seems like now would be a good time for Fairfax City to create a more detailed development plan.

by Leigh K. on May 29, 2014 5:50 pm • linkreport

The things that are missing, listed under "far from perfect" seem like some dealbreakers to me. Add the fact that the transition from home to anywhere crosses some pretty hairy roads, only the brave will bike or walk -- rather like we do now. And, I don't see any biking infrastructure mentioned although perhaps it's implied.

by BikingMom on May 29, 2014 8:17 pm • linkreport

I presume this means that the two strip malls that include Radio Shack, Peter Pan, Payless Shoes, Hudson Trail Outfitters, the auto rebuilder, and Staples will be gone, along with Dunkin Doughnuts and the other smaller shops out front, but the "back lot" triangle will remain?

by Cottleprops on May 29, 2014 8:29 pm • linkreport

I used to live at Circle Towers, at the top-right part of the second picture. While the towers are now completely derelict, they were an early attempt at TOD, before TOD really existed, with retail unfortunately facing into the plaza and not to the streets.

I used to commute to the south side of the Vienna metro daily, and while the walk was about 15-20 minutes, there were a lot of other people who made the walk every day. This was before MetroWest had any development, and the land was just the bulldozed former subdivision. I have to imagine that with MetroWest established and an actual route to the metro (and not a former street through a forest of abandoned lots) it would induce more walkers to the south side of the metro, including from this new development.

While I don't like the small parking lot/service road proposed on the south side of this development, it is a huge improvement over existing conditions and could help spur other redevelopment that is badly needed in the area. Pedestrian improvements to Lee Highway approaching MetroWest will be critical to encourage walkers from this new development.

by Dan on May 30, 2014 9:46 am • linkreport

Dan, The frontage road paralleling 50 on the south side is actually pretty pedestrian-friendly. It will have bulb-outs, a 10' path and a wide landscaped buffer. The developer's original plans were just as you described, but they improved upon it after pressure from staff and Council.

BikingMom, Yes, the surrounding roads will remain hard to cross, although this project will improve the crossing at Fairfax Boulevard somewhat by adding pedestrian-scale lighting and landscaping the refuge island on Fairfax Boulevard along the development. There are no dedicated on-road bike accommodations but the 10' path along the Boulevard will help.

Cottleprops -- Dunkin' Donuts was not part of the project, for better or for worse. Omega World Travel on the back triangle is not part of it either. Yes, all of the tenants are going to be displaced.

by Douglas Stewart on May 30, 2014 1:54 pm • linkreport

Thank you for the article. As the Indy Green Party candidates for local, state, and federal office note in every campaign, we need "More Trains, Less Traffic." That means rail to Fairfax City. Our Indy Green Party endorsee for 2014 for U.S. House is the Green Party's Dr. Joe Galdo, for "More Trains, Less Traffic!" Let's get solar, and geothermal energy in all those buildings too.

by Carey C Campbell on May 30, 2014 2:46 pm • linkreport

I walk from the south side of Fairfax Circle Plaza to the Vienna metro and it has improved in walkability with MetroWest. Crossing Lee Highway at Circle Woods Drive could use some improvement and a crosswalk between Blake and the circle on Route 50 would we wonderful. Many people cross there now, despite the lack of a crosswalk. Many people also cross Blake where the trail comes out of the woods (https://www.google.com/maps/@38.86606,-77.270796,3a,75y,38.34h,79.89t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s6Ke7FXpPpFS_m45JaRwK5Q!2e0).

by FairfaxWalker on May 30, 2014 3:07 pm • linkreport

Great, let's do it, and move through to the west, getting rid of every Title Max, used car dealer, and furniture store that has been going out of business for the last decade (but occasionally changes it's name).

by Kathy on May 30, 2014 9:15 pm • linkreport

Any idea when the development will begin?

by Saj'M on May 31, 2014 1:48 pm • linkreport

Saj'M -- Combined is keeping its options open, saying that it could start as soon as 2015 and as late as 2018.

by Douglas Stewart on May 31, 2014 8:18 pm • linkreport

Apologies for being off topic - but are there any thoughts of running light rail or street cars on Braddock Road from the Beltway to Centreville. This road makes up southern boundary of Fairfax City by GMU.

Also any status on the metro bring extended to Centreville? If the are going to do that why not go all the way to Gainesville and solve the I-66 traffic problems for good.

by Sam Atel on Jun 8, 2014 10:56 am • linkreport

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