Posts about Fairfax
Two Virginia candidates want a referendum on the Columbia Pike streetcar. That is pointless and possibly destructive.
Two Virginia political candidates have called for a voter referendum on the Columbia Pike streetcar. This is a bad idea.
Alan Howze, one of the two, is running for Arlington County Board in November's special election. He just lost in a relatively low-turnout special election against John Vihstadt, who made the streetcar one of his main issues. The other is Patrick Hope, one of ten candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to succeed retiring US Representative Jim Moran.
But a referendum on the Columbia Pike streetcar is unecessary both practially and legally. It wouldn't change the status of the project in any material way and would just add extra time and expense to a process that has already been clear and democratic.
Debate is over for the streetcar
There is not much left to discuss about the relative merits of a streetcar versus its alternatives. In July 2012, the county board chose the streetcar after a thorough analysis of alternatives. This concluded a process that began in the 1980's and started considering transit options in 2004.
After the announcement, those who insisted that bus-only options could generate the same return for less cost challenged the decision. In response, the county commissioned another study by an independent firm. The results echoed the previous analysis that the streetcar is the best option for Columbia Pike.
When the facts are this clear, a prolonged campaign on the merits of a streetcar will not reveal anything new about the project. However, there would be plenty of opportunity for misinformation to spread widely and affect voters on election day.
This tactic doesn't make sense for streetcar supporters
It's understandable for opponents of a project to seek to delay implementation. They don't want to see something built and hope that a delay will give them more time to persuade people of their arguments or add time and expense to a project that will make it look worse than it is. We have seen this in DC, where delays to the zoning update have just added more time to a process and just watered down the changes more and more.
But a referendum that would just lengthen the process and muddy the waters doesn't make sense coming from project proponents like Howze or Delegate Hope. At best, the referendum would confirm the project is popular but delay the actual project. At worst, it would give ammunition to opponents and introduce further delays as political fights continue.
A referendum would also let opponents divert the argument away from facts. By just saying, "Let the voters decide," they would deflect any heat about false facts or mistruths they have spread about other options for the corridor.
Results would be meaningless anyway
In Virginia, a referendum is required when a local government wants to sell bonds. But neither Arlington nor Fairfax county plans to fund the streetcar with bonds. An "advisory" referendum would not have any material effect on the project. Opponents could have petitioned for a binding referendum, but if they thought they had the numbers for such a petition, they would have done it long ago.
Moreover, to hold any non-bond-related referendum, the counties would need permission from the General Assembly in Richmond. That means another layer of government to wade through for a local project that won't use any significant state funds.
Northern Virginia already has enough problems getting the state to give it control over specific regional issues. It doesn't make sense to punt this issue back to Richmond for something they never had to be involved with in the first place.
Is it just politics?
Supporters, including Howze himself, already argue that even if unpopular now, the streetcar will ultimately prove popular, as Metro and Capital Bikeshare, and other county transportation decisions are today. It's good that these candidates feel confident enough in the project that they think it can stand up to a direct electoral challenge. But there's no need to do so, the project is good, and the process has been clear.
So why hold a referendum? Hope might be seeking to stand out in a crowded field and perhaps draw some votes from streetcar opponents while remaining a supporter of the streetcar.
Howze seems to be trying to have it both ways on the streetcar: continue to appeal to voters who support it, but also give opponents less reason to work against his election. Howze started out his nomination campaign equivocating on the streetcar, and only later came out as a strong supporter.
Meanwhile, Vihstadt was able to bring together blocs of voters, often who opposed a particular county project. They were more motivated to turn out, especially in a special election. Howze may have a greater advantage in November when many voters might already be at the polls and would pick a Democrat purely based on party identification, but he also seems to be trying to hedge his bets by running to the middle on issues.
Instead, Howze, already on the defensive after losing last month's special election, should find ways to attract more pro-streetcar voters in the regular election in November. That would provide far more security for the project than trying to bet on its popularity via a referendum that ultimately wouldn't matter.
The only way the City of Falls Church can grow is up. To expand its tax base, city leaders have been promoting mixed-use development and even blocking projects that aren't mixed-use. This trend is taking another step with a new building under construction at 301 West Broad Street.
Broad Street is Falls Church's major link to Tysons Corner, Seven Corners, and Alexandria. Within the city limits, the street features a mix of styles that reflect several eras in architectural history. There are low-slung commercial buildings, but 301 West Broad will add to a growing number of taller mixed-use buildings that are ramping up the density in Falls Church.
The building, by developer Rushmark, will be seven stories tall with 282 apartments. A Harris Teeter and another retail space will occupy the ground floor. The building is replacing a post office and a restaurant, Anthony's, which had been at the site since 1972. Both have relocated, the post office to another mixed-use building up the street.
The "Little City" embraces urbanism
Nicknamed "the Little City," Falls Church is only a bit larger than two square miles and is one of the smallest municipalities by area in the country. The city is so small that the city's middle and high schools were actually located in Fairfax County until last year.
To fund city services on par with its much larger neighbors, Falls Church is actively embracing mixed use construction. City leaders recognize that mixed-use buildings offer more economic value on smaller parcels than typical suburban construction. Mixed-use also provides more tax revenue than single-use construction, even when the total building size is smaller.
Falls Church is actively planning for growth where the best opportunities exist. Besides directly on Broad Street, there are relatively large commercial parcels along South Washington Street and land it gained in a land swap with Fairfax County in 2012.
The city enjoys advantages for building smart growth compared to its larger neighbors. Most streets follow a grid pattern, and the city's zip code, 22046, rates a Walk Score of 78 ("Very Walkable"). The W&OD Trail also runs through much of the city, and the Custis trailhead is close by.
While WMATA's two Falls Church metro stations aren't actually inside the city, residents aren't more than a few minute bus ride to either one and service is frequent.
The Route 7 Corridor Study is examining transit options for route 7 between Tysons Corner and Alexandria. This could bring a potential light rail or a streetcar line right in front of 301 West Broad and put higher quality-transit close to residents all over the city.
Obstacles and opposition remain
The city's small size and population makes it relatively easy for citizens to get involved in planning decisions, and there was a lot of input during the project's design. The city's Winter Hill neighborhood is adjacent to the project and many citizens weighed in, often with tentative support.
Some worried about the noise and trash in the back of the building from the grocery store's loading dock. Some said that at 65,000 square feet, the Harris Teeter was larger than appropriate for what was supposed to be a more "urban" grocery store.
Rushmark responded by totally enclosing the loading dock and noting that a similar store in a mixed use development in Tysons Corner was around the same size.
Other residents were generally concerned about schools, roads, and parking. They said these impacts would outweigh the tax revenue from the new development. Meanwhile, members of the city's planning commission reportedly worried that the building was too "urban" for the "suburban" city of Falls Church.
But Falls Church is in a unique position. It neighbors some of Northern Virginia's biggest commercial areas. Its small town image has competed with the region's growth for a long time. Still more changes to the "Little City" are coming, and the city may not stay so little for long.
Not to be outdone by its neighbors' aggressive plans for rail and BRT networks, Fairfax County has an impressive transit plan of its own.
Now Fairfax has a major countrywide transit plan too, called the High Quality Transit Network. Top priorities are to finish the Silver Line and the Bailey's Crossroads portion of the Columbia Pike streetcar, but that's not the end of Fairfax's plans.
Both rail and BRT are possibilities for all those corridors. Some may end up light rail or streetcar, others bus. Route 1 and I-66 could even include Metrorail extensions.
In addition to all that, Fairfax County Parkway is slated for HOT lanes, which could make express buses a more practical option there.
As the DC region continues to grow, and demand for walkable, transit-accessible communities continues to increase, these types of plans are crucial. If our major arterial highways are going to become the mixed-use main streets of tomorrow, transit on them must significantly improve.
Fairfax is undeniably still spending a lot on bigger highways. Planners' inability to calm traffic on Routes 7 and 123 through Tysons, for example, indicates roads are still priority number one. But it takes a plan to change, and this is a strong step forward. So good on Fairfax for joining the club.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
The latest future population projections forecast that by 2040 the District of Columbia will have a population of 883,600. That would far eclipse the historic high of 802,178, from the 1950 census.
Despite that growth, DC would still rank as only the 4th most populous jurisdiction in the region, behind Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince George's. But the next 26 years could narrow that gap considerably. Demographers project that only Fairfax will add more people than DC. Prince George's will add fewer than half as many.
The forecasts come from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), which is sort of a United Nations for local governments in the DC region.
COG's forecast report has a treasure trove of fascinating demographic info, not only about population, but also jobs and households. For example, by 2040 COG's demographers expect DC to have over 1 million jobs.
Of course, these are only projections. Nobody can predict the future with 100% accuracy. COG's forecasts often fail to predict the biggest peaks during booms and lowest dips during busts. But all in all they've historically been reasonably accurate.
So get ready for more neighbors.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Fairfax County is considering dressing up the Silver Line's mammoth concrete pylons with murals. The idea could help animate the otherwise bleak, gray structures.
Ideally the Silver Line would've been underground through Tysons Corner. But federal rules that have since changed prevented that, forcing the Metro line above ground, onto a huge elevated structure.
That wasn't the end of the world, but it did condemn Tysons to some unnecessary ugly.
So why not dress it up? Murals can unquestionably make big gray structures more colorful and interesting. They're easy to implement, don't cost very much, and help a little. There's not much down side.
Murals are, however, still just lipstick on a pig. They don't solve the underlying deadening effect of bare walls. For example the Discovery building mural on Colesville Road in Silver Spring is surely better than bare concrete, but shops & cafes would've been better still.
And Tysons' murals won't be as effective as the one in Silver Spring. Colesville Road is basically urban, basically walkable. The block with the mural is the weakest link on an otherwise lively urban street.
But in Tysons, the Silver Line runs down the middle of Leesburg Pike, one of the most pedestrian-hostile highways in the region. If murals are added to the Silver Line, they may become the best and most interesting part of the streetscape, as opposed to the worst.
So by all means, Fairfax County should absolutely do this. Murals are a great tool to cover any large blank structure. But what Tysons really needs is walkable streets with lively sidewalks.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
A study of Virginia's Route 1 finds that people want "to create destinations, ... not a throughway." They also want better pedestrian and bicycle safety, and really want transit, but they also want to see traffic flow faster. What's the best way to balance these?
If this major public investment can succeed in creating walkable, livable transit communities along the corridor, the state and localities need to find ways to keep vehicle speeds down and not force people to cross long distances. They can start by designing roads to create a sense of place instead of inhibit it.
In fact, building better places could also speed up traffic flow, by making it possible for more people to get to local shopping without driving, or by taking other roads in a street grid instead of all piling onto Route 1 itself.
How fast and wide should Route 1 be?
The study assumes that the speed limit would remain 45 mph and lanes would be 12 feet wide. A road built for speed will create a less comfortable environment at center median transit stations. It will increase the distances pedestrians have to cross. And it will reduce the sense of connectivity between transit-oriented neighborhoods on either side of the road. Perhaps the speed will impact transit ridership as well.
There's a history here. A few years back, VDOT proposed reducing posted speeds to 35 mph, but faced a huge public outcry and the local supervisors made VDOT drop the proposal.
Bicycles struggle to find a place
The study also looked at ways to accommodate bicycles. Options included on-road bike lanes or an on-road cycletrack (among others), but the 45-mph road and wide lanes essentially forced the study team to select an off-road, 10-foot shared-use path for both bikes and pedestrians. This will almost certainly spark concerns about the impact on pedestrian safety, on the efficiency of bike travel, and the risks to bicyclists and pedestrians crossing intersections.
1997 British study on the relationship between vehicle speed and pedestrian fatalities shows that higher speeds mean more pedestrian fatalities.
State and local officials should authorize the consultants to study an alternative with a 35 mph posted speed, 11-foot lanes, and on-road cycle tracks, to evaluate if this approach will not only smooth out and maintain good traffic flow, but will improve safety for all users, while enhancing the walkable, transit-oriented centers that the community seeks.
Will housing remain affordable if transit improves?
Until recently, the Route 1 corridor in Fairfax and Prince William hasn't seen the same level of investment as other parts of the two counties. It hasn't moved beyond aging strip malls, an unsafe pedestrian environment, deteriorated streams, and plenty of traffic.
This is also an area with an important supply of affordable housing, and many are concerned that the promise of new transit investment will increase land values and eliminate existing market-rate affordable housing.
Given that Fairfax County's commercial revitalization corridors are also the location of most of the county's affordable housing, the county needs a proactive approach when planning major new transit investments in these corridors. That must preserve affordable housing in good condition and include new affordable units in new development projects.
Unfortunately, the county has severely cut back its housing trust fund, and its inclusionary zoning policies for affordable units don't apply to buildings over four stories. The study should consider how new transit will affect property values and the current supply of affordable units. The county needs to commit to a robust housing strategy for the Route 1 corridor like the one Arlington adopted for Columbia Pike.
Change is indeed coming to the Route 1 corridor. The demand to live closer to the core of the region and expansion at Fort Belvoir are already driving new investment, including the recently-completed Beacon of Groveton, the Penn Daw development, and upgraded strip shopping centers.
Long-time residents are hungry to see more change come sooner. Many at the meeting pressed to move the transit project forward as soon as possible. That's a challenge given the lead times required to plan, fund and build major new transportation projects. Fairfax and the state should make this transit corridor a top priority. They also must support investment in Metro's core capacity so that the rail system can handle the new riders.
The study team should complete the traffic analysis by the end of April; the economic, land use and funding analysis will follow by the end of May; and they will recommend an alternative by July. The next public meeting is in June. In the meantime, take their survey and make comments on this form.
Better transit could one day come to Virginia's Route 1 between the Beltway and Woodbridge. A transit study looked at transit options and narrowed down the choices to curbside or median Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), light rail, or a hybrid of BRT and extending Metro's Yellow Line.
The study presents a wealth of data and a thorough analysis, but raises key questions, including what speed limit is appropriate for a more transit-oriented Route 1. A new high-capacity transit system would transform the corridor, but there would be challenges to ensure a safe pedestrian and bicycle environment and preserve affordable housing.
The study considered 8 transit options before eliminating streetcar, enhanced bus, express bus, local bus, a Yellow Line extension all the way to Woodbridge, and monorail. The 4 alternatives that remain for further study are:
- Curbside Bus Rapid Transit (including a stretch in mixed traffic from Pohick Road to Woodbridge)
- Median Bus Rapid Transit (with a shorter mixed traffic section in Prince William County to Woodbridge)
- Median Light Rail Transit
- A Metrorail-BRT Hybrid, extending the Yellow Line to Hybla Valley and then switching to BRT.
The study looked at 3 land use scenarios:
- A baseline forecast for 2035 from the regional Council of Governments model;
- 25% more growth based on what a BRT or LRT line would likely generate;
- 169% more which is necessary to support Metrorail service.
For the road itself, the study rejects widening Route 1 to four lanes in each direction, as well as converting existing lanes to transit-only. That leaves a recommendation for three general lanes in each direction as well as transit in a separate right-of-way.
What transit do you think should go in this corridor? In part 2, we'll talk about how to create a sense of place and what this plan means for housing affordability.
Between the years 2000 and 2014, assessed land values in Tysons rose from approximately $4.3 billion to over $11.8 billion in value. These maps show you where:
Much of the change occurred in redeveloped properties and new commercial headquarters such as Capital One, Freddie Mac, Hilton, Gannett, and Northrup Grumman. New residential neighborhoods such as Park Crest, homes along Gosnell, and the Gates of McLean also increased the overall value of the region.
The images above are looking from the south side of Tysons. The Beltway is the large gap to the center right of the image. Route 7 intersects from the lower right and runs to the upper left of the image. Route 123 is farther in the background running near parallel to the horizon.
What do you notice that's interesting?
Watering can image from Shutterstock.com.
Streetcar opponents in Arlington have been arguing that better buses on Columbia Pike could provide as many benefits as streetcars, for much lower cost. This new study shows that claim simply isn't true.
Although streetcars on Columbia Pike will cost $200 to $250 million more than enhanced buses, rail will return $3.2 to $4.4 billion in economic benefits, compared to only $1.0 to $1.4 billion for bus.
This means the $2.2 to $3 billion worth of additional benefits from streetcars are approximately 10 times as great as the additional cost.
Arlington commissioned this new study to analyze the economic costs and benefits of streetcars and enhanced buses on Columbia Pike in a side-by-side, apples-to-apples way. The study also takes into consideration new data that's come out since previous studies, leading to more realistic forecasts.
An independent firm, HR&A Advisors, conducted the study. They took several steps, including literature reviews, case studies, and interviews, to establish the study's credibility as not advancing a predetermined outcome.
Enhanced bus isn't BRT
Streetcar opponents had hoped this report would demonstrate stronger benefits for buses, citing analysis from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) that examined the benefits of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) projects around the country.
The Columbia Pike study found that while many BRT projects do indeed have strong returns on investment, the conditions in those cities cannot be replicated on Columbia Pike.
Labels for transportation projects matter, and "enhanced bus" is not the same as "BRT." While the enhanced bus option on Columbia Pike would mean longer buses and off-board payment, these improvements wouldn't be enough to see the gains of true BRT. According to HR&A, citing the benefits of "full BRT" on Columbia Pike makes for "flawed comparisons."
The bus option costs more than earlier studies assumed
Although the streetcar option is more expensive than the bus option, the difference isn't as great as previously believed. The return on investment study notes some additional costs for enhanced buses that weren't a part of previous analysis.
Since the bus option would bring new articulated buses into the corridor, that would require building a new operations and repair facility for the buses somewhere nearby. Previous studies only counted a cost for a maintenance and operations yard for the streetcar, not for bus.
Also, adding more heavy 60-foot buses on Columbia Pike would require repaving the roadbed using more durable concrete, to handle the weight of the new buses. Previous studies assumed the streetcar would require roadbed and track construction, but didn't for the bus alternative. They had instead projected that buses would use the existing roadbed for no additional cost.
Enhanced buses are a good tool in many corridors, but the claim that they can provide equal benefits to streetcars on Columbia Pike should be put to rest once and for all.
In the Census-Designated Place of "West Falls Church," there are no town centers, no major landmarks, or no prominent geographic features, and the Metro station of the same name is 3 miles away. So what should we call it instead?
West Falls Church and surrounding communities. Map from the Fairfax County Department of Communities and Neighborhood Services.
The challenge with renaming West Falls Church is that the area is best described as what it isn't. It isn't Seven Corners, Merrifield, Dunn Loring, Tysons Corner, Baileys Crossroads or Annandale. These places are all Census-Designated Places (CDPs) whose names are well known, and residents and non-residents alike would have some sense of the general location of each one.
If it were just used for census reporting purposes, the name West Falls Church wouldn't matter very much. But, the Census Bureau's own edict is for CDP names to be meaningful. And as residents and visitors have grown to rely on sites like Google Maps and Wikipedia for wayfinding and information, West Falls Church's online presence is more worrisome.
Perhaps this is an opportunity to create a name that would evoke some sense of place for the area, and could become as well-known as Tysons Corner. So, it looks like we have five years until the next census to come up with a better name and convince the stakeholders.
South Falls Church
If, as Fairfax County officials suggested, my fellow residents did want the words "Falls Church" in the name of the CDP, then the only logical (and geographically correct) name would be South Falls Church. This name certainly has some historical precedence, according to Wikipedia:
Following the Civil War, local African-Americans established prosperous communities in an area then called South Falls Church, along Tinner's Hill and elsewhere.... A local setback for blacks occurred, however, in 1887 when white Falls Church residents successfully gerrymandered heavily black South Falls Church out of the town limits. This was never reversed, and caused the boundary of the future City of Falls Church to follow South Washington Street."South Falls Church" violates the Census Bureau's policy of prohibiting of "cardinal direction + adjacent town name" because it is not currently in "local use." However, it has historical precedence and significance, and is geographically correct! And, we have five years to bring it in to local use!
West Falls Church
I would like to immediately rule out "West Falls Church." In addition to the geographical inaccuracy of the name, it does not meet the Census Bureau's criteria. There are no landscape features, schools or signs that use this name. I was able to find one retail center (and a dental practice there) that uses the name. But, if you asked residents of my CDP, "Where is West Falls Church?" the answers would, almost without exception, direct you to or near the West Falls Church Metro station.
In my fourteen years here, no resident that I've met has ever identified this entire area as "Jefferson," but unlike "West Falls Church," it doesn't cause confusion and there's no geographical ambiguity. "Jefferson" is used throughout the CDP, in the Jefferson Village neighborhood, shopping center, and park, as well as Jefferson Fire Station, Thomas Jefferson Library and Jefferson Avenue.
JV's Restaurant, the most famous bar/restaurant/honky-tonk in the CDP (and, I would argue, in the entire Metro DC region), is an abbreviation of Jefferson Village as well. Evidently, most of the establishments in the Jefferson Village Shopping Center were named Jefferson, such as the Jefferson Theatre, pictured here in 1949 (notice JV's Restaurant immediately to the left of the theatre):
In Fairfax County's Comprehensive Plan, the CDP area is part of the Jefferson Planning District, although the planning district also includes the Idylwood CDP and parts of other CDPs (see Map 3). In the Comprehensive Plan, there is also a Jefferson Village Conservation Plan for an apartment complex located near Arlington Boulevard and Graham Road.
The Jefferson Planning District, with dotted line added to show West Falls Church's boundaries. Image from the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan.
Lastly, I've seen references to the use of "JEfferson" as the telephone exchange name for local numbers, back when this was in fashion. Several exchanges in the eastern part of the CDP do begin with 53x (where the "53" can be translated to "JE" on a telephone dial).
How to change the name
Whether "South Falls Church" or another name is selected, Fairfax County could make some very simple changes to help give us a sense of place. The Thomas Jefferson Library, Mosby post office, and Jefferson fire station could all get the new name. We could add signs marking the entrance to the area on Arlington Boulevard, at the intersection of Graham Road and Lee Highway, and on Annandale Road. We could encourage businesses to adopt the name, and create South Falls Church (or whatever name) citizens' and business associations. Finally, we could simply encourage local residents to begin using the name.
What name do you think would be best?
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