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A zoning change in Fairfax will allow more density

In Fairfax, the zoning code now allows buildings that are near Metro stations or that are part of certain commercial corridors to be denser than than before. The Board of Supervisor's decision to approve the change last week is emblematic of an effort to make sure that new housing and office space are paired with transportation options.


Tysons Corner is one of the densest places in Fairfax, but the county is prepping for demand in other places as well. Photo by Ryan Stavely on Flickr.

The thought behind Fairfax's changes is that putting more density in these locations will allow the county's population to grow without adding much more congestion because new development will put people close to existing and coming public transportation.

And the commercial corridors that aren't as close to a Metro station may become denser as a way to create more mixed use areas in Fairfax where people don't have to drive as much for basic errands. This will also make these places ripe for future transit projects or improvements as well.

The county plans to do this by increasing the limit of a new building's floor area ratio, or FAR. FAR is a typical tool in figuring out how dense a building can be rather than just designating a number of floors or lot coverage. Two buildings that look different could have the same FAR depending on how they're built.


This is not really what the county has in mind. Photo of Sao Paolo Brazil by Kalexander2010 on Flickr.

The higher the FAR, the bigger and denser any building is allowed to be. Fairfax's new zoning will allow FARs up to 5.0 in designated areas, which is more than the current maximums of FAR 2.0 or 3.0 in many of the areas slated for rezoning. That means if a building takes up 100% of a building lot, the building can be built to a maximum of five stories. If the building takes up half the lot the building can be ten stories. Either way, the building is at FAR 5.0.

Here's what opponents said

The zoning changes did meet opposition from people who said that a FAR of 5.0 would be too extreme a jump from what has been allowed. Even some very urban places, like Rosslyn, which is home to some of the region's tallest buildings, has an allowed FAR of less than 5.0.

Another issue is whether or not Fairfax is allowing developers to build without having to provide anything to mitigate some of the negative effects from their projects in neighborhoods pinpointed for the change.

On an episode of the Kojo Nnamdi Show last week, before the Fairfax vote, Terry Maynard of the group Reston 20/20 argued that Fairfax was giving too much leeway to developers and not doing enough to protect existing communities from possible negative impacts of new development.

Another contention was that while greater density is okay or even ideal around the county's Metro stations, increasing density in places without rapid transit would just lead to more congestion, which would be harmful. Opponents of the increase argued that Fairfax should instead wait to develop areas after new public transportation investments have been made.

That's because while various comprehensive plans for the targeted neighborhoods contain recommendations for both density and mitigation, for neighbors the bill in front of the Board of Supervisors would only allow new density, leaving both the county and developers off the hook for providing the amenities and infrastructure promised in the comprehensive plan.

Plus for a county as large as Fairfax, many contend that such a general change ignores the differences in specific areas of the county.

Zoning fights in Fairfax aren't new

This wasn't exactly Fairfax's first rodeo when it comes to debating how dense an area should be.

Seven Corners ,at the extreme eastern edge of Fairfax County, has already been one major flashpoint in the fight over density and development in Fairfax. The neighborhoods in Seven Corners are already pretty dense, and the tangle of roadways that lends the area its name makes it a difficult place to get around no matter how you're traveling.

Plans to redevelop the area to build housing in existing commercial spaces and improve the road network (especially for pedestrians and cyclists) led to a major election challenge for Penny Gross, who represents the area on the Fairfax Board of Supervisors. The plan moved forward and Gross won her reelection last fall, but opponents still haven't given up and are likely to keep pressing the issue, especially as redevelopment begins in earnest.


More of this is coming to Fairfax. Photo by Dan Reed.

Reston is another big one. The area between the original development founded by Robert E. Simon and the Reston Town Center is already pretty dense, but Fairfax is planning for more growth to take advantage of the opening and further construction of the Silver Line. Those against more density say the area is already overburdened and Restonians are being asked to shoulder too much of the county's projected growth while developers aren't paying enough for the impacts of their projects.


Reston already looks like this. More is coming. Photo by Payton Chung.

More broadly, this is about Fairfax's fundamental approach to planning

For some, the thought of new businesses and residences in places with a lot of existing congestion is reason to be nervous. Many also feel that Fairfax is changing too much, and is no longer the suburban retreat that they felt like they bought into.

But some of Fairfax's current congestion and development problems stem from a history of growth that missed chances to mitigate congestion by building walkable neighborhoods and transit-oriented development. Keeping density low and sprawled out has ensured that many people have to drive for almost any trip they take, which is a problem Fairfax is now trying to fix.

An obsession with keeping car traffic moving is partly to blame for the zoning rules that actually make sure people drive more rather than less. That's especially true when development is contingent on whether or not a road is wide enough to handle expected traffic, as we know that widening roads usually just incentivizing people to drive.

Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth emphasized that point on that same episode of the Kojo Show I mentioned above. When the debate over whether or not FAR 5.0 would mean too much density, he was careful to point out that the way a building is designed is far more important than the actual density which can be configured in many ways.

It's also worth noting that a 5.0 FAR is just the maximum. Ultimately, the market will figure out how big a particular project should be, and not every building will be built to the maximum unless demand for development in these areas takes a very big, unexpected upswing.

Cities and neighborhoods thrive when they're allowed to change. That's why we still allow new construction even in neighborhoods with strict historic preservation rules. And its necessary to house a growing population as well. Embracing that and working with that knowledge in mind is being proactive about the future rather than accepting the inevitable.

Transit


Let's stand by the Silver Line

Sharon Bulova chairs the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

In light of the safety and maintenance issues that Metro is now addressing with SafeTrack, some members of the media have said that instead of building the Silver Line, WMATA should have fixed the rest of the system. As one of the leaders that helped make the Silver Line happen, I'd like to respond.


Photo by Dan Malouff.

Expansion and maintenance are not mutually exclusive when you do them both responsibly, and it is important to note that WMATA did not build or pay for the Silver Line extension. The Silver Line was financed outside of the WMATA budget, and funding to build the extension could not have been used instead for Metro maintenance.

Financing for construction of the Silver Line comes from multiple sources, including special tax districts in Fairfax County paid by commercial and industrial landowners along the Dulles corridor, motorists using the Dulles Toll Road, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the federal government, Loudoun County and the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The Silver Line took decades of planning and spanned numerous elected officials and leaders. The project almost died a few times, and the 2014 grand opening was a tremendous feat.
This extension of Metro has served as a major underpinning of economic growth and redevelopment in Tysons, spurring over 100 million square feet of new approved development within a half-mile of the new stations. In terms of growth in the commercial tax base, Tysons increased by a rate of 3.1% in FY 2016 and 10.8% in FY 2017.

By 2050, Fairfax County plans to attract 100,000 residents and 200,000 jobs to Tysons. Riders using the Silver Line from Phase I (Tysons/Reston) and Phase II (Dulles Airport and beyond) will have access to a one-seat ride to downtown DC and a safe and convenient connection to the rest of the region. This increase in connectivity and access to Metro is why ensuring the safety and reliability of the systen is critical to our region's success.


Photo by Dan Malouff.

Past WMATA leaders failed to make safety the top priority and neglected to do major maintenance as well. That led to tragedy and, eventually, the SafeTrack maintenance plan we see today. SafeTrack is impacting all Metro riders this year, but the heavy dose of maintenance medicine will shore up the entire system.

Paul Wiedefeld is focused on getting Metro back on its feet and transforming WMATA's culture into one that is safety-first. I believe this generation will be known for repairing, revitalizing, reinvesting, and reinvigorating the infrastructure that past generations built. While SafeTrack is placing a temporary burden on commuters, it's necessary and in many cases is being completed ahead of schedule. I believe this bodes well for WMATA's future.

I will be working with my regional counterparts through the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Greater Washington Board of Trade to identify dedicated funding for WMATA. We must prepare for the future and we must do so safely, responsibly, and consistently. Our regional economy depends on Metro's success.

Transit


At this park & ride, buses and bikes get the spotlight

Renovations to Fairfax's Stringfellow Road Park and Ride just finished up, and they're largely focused on buses and bicycles. This means the park and ride will function more like a multi-modal transit center than just a place for commuters to leave their cars.


New waiting area and bike racks. Photo by Adam Lind.

The park and ride is in Centreville, close to Fair Lakes and I-66. There is a special HOV-only exit that makes it popular with commuters who want to either join a slug line or catch the bus.


Image from Google Maps.

It will be easier to catch a bus

New buses will service the park and ride, while existing routes will run more often, seven days a week. At rush hour, buses will run between Stringfellow and the Vienna Metro every 10 minutes.

A Fairfax Connector store will have resources for riders, as well as a place to wait for the bus. Also, more bus service is likely to come in the future thanks to Transform 66. That project will build HOT lanes between Haymarket and Falls Church that will be used by a number of express buses, which may originate or stop at Stringfellow Road.

There's a great option for storing your bike

Bicycling also gets a big boost thanks to the arrival of the county's second secure bike room. This facility will be similar to the now-popular bike room at the Reston-Wiehle Metro station.

The bike room is a great option for cyclists: the fact that you need a membership pass makes it much less likely for your bike to be stolen, and the shelter keeps your bike out of the elements. Some parking is available for bike trailers or other over-sized bicycles as well.


Inside the secure bike room. Photo by Adam Lind.

Adam Lind, Fairfax County's bicycle program coordinator, said that Fairfax has plans to provide secure bike parking at any regular parking garage built or funded by the Fairfax County Department of Transportation. This includes garages built at future Silver Line Metro stations. He also said that members will be able to use any garage in the county's growing network.

Lind expects that biking to the Stringfellow Park and Ride will become even more popular since Transform 66 will many making bike and pedestrian options in surrounding neighborhoods better. One example: plans to extend the Custis Trail.

While the big transit news in Fairfax usually deals with Tyson's Corner and the Silver Line the new amenities at Stringfellow Road show that improvement is happening all over the our region's most populous jurisdiction.

Bicycling


Use this map to make Fairfax more bike-friendly

Little River Turnpike, a major road that runs across Fairfax, is difficult to bike along. The county is looking to change that, though, and a new interactive map lets you make suggestions for how it can.


Click this map for a version that you can comment on. Image from Fairfax County.

Stretching from Fairfax City to Alexandria, Little River Turnpike has been a major road since the 1800s and its interchanges with both 495 and 395 mean the road sees a lot of traffic today.

Right now, there are no bike lanes on Little River Turnpike, and sidewalks are hit and miss. Fairfax wants to make it easy to bike between the many neighborhoods and businesses up and down the road.


Riding a bike here could be a whole lot easier. Image from Google Maps.

While there is a master bike plan for Fairfax, some of its roads need a more detailed and focused approach. Little River Turnpike is one of them (the county has deemed it a "policy road"), so planners in Fairfax are conducting the Little River Turnpike Bicycle Study to determine the best way to improve bike riding options there. They're starting with the interactive map above.

One challenge for bike projects along the road is a narrow right of way, which means there isn't much space for bike lanes (and it'd be expensive for the county to buy the space). Also, there some places along the road do have ample space for a stretch, but then it ends abruptly.

The hope with the map is that planners will be able to identify quick fixes in some of the road's trouble spots. The entire study could lead to broader-sweeping changes, but those would be further down the line.

This isn't the only bicycle project coming to Annandale. A number of bike lanes will go in when Ravensworth Road, Guinea Road, John Marr Drive, and Heritage Drive get repaved this summer (all of these roads connect to or run near Little River Turnpike).

Fairfax did this last year as well, when it used an interactive map to crowdsource ideas for bike projects across the county.

Pedestrians


This Annandale park is getting a new foot bridge, after all

In late March, a foot bridge in Annandale disappeared altogether because Fairfax County officials said they couldn't afford to fix or replace it. On Wednesday, however, the county said it will build a new one.


This bridge is gone, but a new one will replace it soon. Photo by Rick Carlstrom.

On March 23, the county removed the bridge, which crosses a tiny stream in Annandale's Broyhill Crest Park, after determining it was in danger of collapsing. At that time, Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross told residents that, according to the Fairfax County Park Authority, a replacement bridge would cost $80,000 and there was no money in the budget for a new one.

But in an April 20 email to the Broyhill Crest community, Gross said she and Frank Vajda, the Mason representative on the Park Authority Board, continued to work with Park Authority staff on finding a way to replace the bridge. "Leaving the community bereft of a pedestrian crossing for a long period of time was unacceptable," she said.

"I am happy to report that the Park Authority came through, funding has been identified, and the order for a new fiberglass bridge has been placed," she continued.

A prefabricated bridge should arrive in about four weeks, and the project should be finished in about six.


The trail between Murray Lane and Lockwood Lane where a new pedestrian bridge will be installed. Photo by the author.

"In the meantime," Gross said, "Park Authority maintenance staff will be working at the site to stabilize the stream banks and prepare for installation of bridge foundations prior to the placement of the new bridge."

Gross estimated using park maintenance staff instead of contractors for some of the work will save about $20,000. She can't say what the final cost will be because "we don't know what problems they might run into." The county will still have to hire contractors to install the piers and do some of the stream restoration work, she said.

Local residents who had spoken up about the unsafe bridge for years and urged the county to fix it had been disappointed that the county would simply remove it without any plans for replacing it.

Crossposted from Annandale VA. Also, this post was updated to reflect Penny Gross' comments on costs and savings.

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