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Posts about Merrifield

Roads


How will "connected vehicles" affect urbanism?

A consortium of Virginia schools will soon start testing vehicles in Fairfax County that can talk to each other and their surroundings. But what will "connected vehicles" (CV) really mean for transportation and urbanism?


Photo by Steven Mackay.

Researchers have attached tracking equipment to light poles and other roadside infrastructure in and around Merrifield, including stretches of I-66, Lee Highway, and Route 50. The roadside equipment will communicate with devices about the size of an E-ZPass installed in 12 "connected vehicles," including a bus, semi-truck, cars, and motorcycles.

The devices collect data such as acceleration, braking, and curve handling. Researchers hope that the new system will dramatically reduce highway crashes, increase fuel efficiency, and improve air quality.

"The intersection can say 'there is snow happening right here,'" explains Gabrielle Laskey of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. Conversely, if a connected car were to experience a loss of traction, it would relay that information to the roadside devices so authorities would know the precise location of hazardous conditions.


Left: a CV data collection unit. Right: an in-car CV display. Photo from the VTTI.

The research will focus on ways to improve both safety and mobility. "If we can detect initial braking, we can slow vehicles down and message the driver, saying something like 'Slow traffic ahead. Reduce speed to 45 mph' or 'Left lane closed ahead; merge right,'" said VDOT Spokesperson Cathy McGhee.

Study will involve area drivers and "regular" cars

The CV technology will go further than the Active Traffic Management System of overhead dynamic signs VDOT will soon install on I-66. The CV system "can give information directly to the driver and provide an additional level of information," said McGhee.

Although the CV roadside equipment is already in place in Merrifield, the connected vehicles are undergoing final road testing on the Virginia test track in Blacksburg. In January, those vehicles plus another 50 operated by VDOT will roll out on Merrifield highways.

In the spring, researchers will seek out drivers of an additional 200 "regular" vehicles through ads on Craigslist and in the Washington Post. Their cars will receive communication devices similar to test vehicles' which will notify drivers verbally or by tone through a GPS-sized display. Drivers who volunteer for the program will not need specialized driving skills. "We want to use na´ve participants and make these devices as useful and available as a cell phone," says Laskey.

Over the next couple of years, a consortium of research institutions consisting of Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, and Morgan State University will conduct 19 separate CV research studies, about half of which will have components in the Merrifield test bed, at a projected cost of $14 million.

One study looks at road signs that can switch from "yield" to "stop," depending on conditions. Another examines how to dim or shut off roadway lighting when it is not needed. And a study in Baltimore involves the use of smart phones and looks at safety and congestion issues related to public transit, transit passengers, pedestrians, and bicyclists.

The new CV technology can also work in conjunction with some current safety systems which use video to "see" non-connected items, such as a pedestrian in a crosswalk, then alert the connected vehicle. The system helps connected vehicles operate on the roadways before a fully connected or automated roadway system exists.

How will CV influence our transportation network?

CV technology could change the way we use and design our streets. Since connected vehicles will alert drivers to imminent collisions, CV technology is expected to drop the crash rate at least by 50 percent, according Thomas Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which is coordinating the public-private venture.


Dingus and a CV motorcycle. Photo by the Jessamine Kane-Wiseley.

Connected vehicles will be able to safely travel much closer together than cars can today, vastly improving the efficiency of existing highway infrastructure. At the CV system's public debut on June 6, Governor McDonnell noted that the technology "could do as much to help alleviate congestion as the building or widening of new highways."

Researchers say CV technology could be in widespread use within five years, which Virginia and Maryland should keep in mind as they decide how to spend billions in new transportation funding. Cars traveling closer together will require less space, so road widenings might not be necessary. On already wide streets, the extra space could be used for bike lanes, sidewalks, or landscaping. Building smaller streets not only costs less, but it frees up room for buildings and open space, making communities more compact and preserving land.

If you'd like to learn more about connected vehicles, USDOT is holding a public meeting in Arlington from September 24 to 26. The agenda includes information about the CV safety program and the Intelligent Transportation Systems Strategic Plan for 2015 to 2019.

Architecture


"Real doors" give human scale to large apartment buildings

Houses have their perks: a yard, a private entrance, and a sense of individuality. Apartments have theirs as well: they're affordable, low-maintenance, and have lots of shared amenities. What if you could get best of both worlds? Apartment communities being built in the area are doing just that with something called "real doors."


"Real doors" in Portland. All photos by the author unless noted.

What are "real doors"? Basically, it's when a multi-family building contains ground-floor apartments or rowhouses with private entrances opening directly to the street. Instead of walking by blank walls or loading docks, you'd pass doors, stoops, porches and more importantly, people.

This is by no means a new idea, but "real doors" have become especially relevant as a way to give large buildings human scale. Danish urban designer Jan Gehl notes that our field of view doesn't go far above eye level, so most pedestrians only pay attention to details at the street level. You might think you're walking by a block of rowhouses, but they could just be the base of a high-rise.

"Real doors" also make streets safer by providing more "eyes on the street." They give residents the privacy and individuality of a house with the communal amenities and low maintenance of an apartment. And they allow architects and developers to provide so-called "missing middle" house types that could accommodate families, like rowhouses, in areas where land values are so high that they're not economically feasible.

I got to see the benefits of "real doors" firsthand in Philadelphia, where for two years I lived on the ground floor of a 100-year-old house that had been turned into apartments decades ago. My roommate and I had affordable rent, just enough space and a doting landlord. We could also walk out from our living room to the front porch, out to the street, and around to the back yard, which made it feel like a house.

"Real doors" have become part of the design culture in places like Vancouver, where former planning director Brent Toderian jokes that they're great for trick-or-treating. Residential projects across Greater Washington have started including them as well, especially in White Flint, where it supports the urban design goals of its Sector Plan. Two projects being built there, Pike + Rose and Archstone Old Georgetown Road, will include them.

However, not all "real doors" are created equal. Done poorly, they can look like an afterthought, feel anonymous and compromise privacy. Let's look at some examples from around the area and the country:

Good


Ground-floor apartment at Halstead Square in Merrifield.

These are "real doors" at Halstead Square, an apartment and retail complex being built in Merrifield. (Check out some more pictures.) These doors belong to single-story, one-bedroom apartments, and each one has a little stoop and an address number. The floor-to-ceiling windows are nice, but they're so close to the ground that people walking by can easily look in.


Tall stoops at Citron in Silver Spring.

At Citron, an apartment building under construction in downtown Silver Spring, "real doors" help it relate to the single-family homes across the street. The ground-floor units are high enough to be private, which would've been a nice opportunity to expand those stoops into porches.

Better


Ground-floor duplexes at the Market Common in Clarendon.

These ground-floor rowhouses at the Market Common in Clarendon each have different-colored doors, giving them their own identity. The building as a whole has similar materials and detailing as the actual rowhouses at the end of the block, helping it blend in.


"Real doors" with private yards at the Silverton. Image from Google Street View.

These "real doors" at the Silverton in South Silver Spring are set back from the street, which provides room for a semi-private, gated patio with enough room for a table and chairs. Though they have big, low windows like Halstead Square, the trees help give shade and privacy. I might have made the doors themselves more distinctive, perhaps with a different paint color or frosted glass panels.

Best


These rowhouses at Eliot Tower in Portland have raised decks.

The best "real doors" I've found are on the West Coast. This is the Eliot Tower in downtown Portland, a tower with two-story rowhouses at its base. Each house has a front deck raised several steps above the street, and you can see how each deck has a tree or some leafy plants for privacy and visual impact.


Rowhouses with yards at the Meriwether in Portland.

At the Meriwether, a tower in Portland's Southwest Waterfront, there are ground-floor rowhouses set behind little yards. Not only do they provide a buffer from the street, but they appear to be part of a bioswale that collects and filters runoff water before it heads to the Willamette River, a few hundred yards away. You can see each house has decks on multiple floors, giving it plenty of outdoor space. And residents have them their own, judging from these hot pink Adirondack chairs.

Worst


Less-than-great "real doors" at Lofts 24 in Silver Spring. Image from Google Street View.

Believe it or not, this is the entrance to two ground-floor condominiums at Lofts 24, also in downtown Silver Spring. Other than the welcome mat outside the door on the right, there's no indication that people actually live here.

Rather than a house, this feels like the entrance to a storage unit. There are no street numbers, no individual open space, and no buffer from the street. The only landscaping are bushes that cover the windows.


Check out these examples of "real doors" from around the region and country.

While these examples aren't perfect, they show the opportunities and challenges of providing "real doors." The scale of development in many urban neighborhoods has gotten bigger, but humans generally remain the same size, so we still have to design to that scale.

Not only can "real doors" make otherwise big buildings feel more comfortable, but they can make safer and more visually attractive streets and offer people a desirable mix of house and apartment living. That is, if we do them right.

This content was originally developed for the Friends of White Flint blog.

Public Spaces


Looks pretty, but try walking there

The new Chevy Chase Bank on Fairfax Boulevard and Warwick Avenue was approved by Fairfax City shortly after completion of the excellent Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan in 2007. The new building, on the site of one of the Boulevard's many foundering or former furniture showrooms, has several good features. There's a pocket park. A nice wide sidewalk with a bench and trees will, over time, provide shade. A well-designed wall buffer pedestrians from the front parking lot. And the building sports a handsome Neoclassical front.


Nice facade and sidewalk, but...

But these "human scale" features are just a tease. They make the site more welcome to someone who is actually present there rather than behind a windshield, but there is no pedestrian access from the sidewalk. A parking lot separates the building from the street. The building's two entrances front the parking lot and larger shopping plaza on one side, and the drive-through area on the other.


... there's a parking lot in the way.
The recently approved Fairfax Pointe project has similar hints at human-scale, pedestrian-oriented design, but also falls short in some important ways. This planned one-story retail building at the confluence of Fairfax Boulevard, Route 29, and Route 236, whose expected tenants include a restaurant and small grocery, will present a false front at Route 236 and have entrances on this street, but the main entrance will be from the parking lot on Fairfax Boulevard. Most of the site is taken up by surface parking.

Will people walk there? The planned uses are neighborhood-oriented, and the Fairchester and Warren Woods neighborhoods are within easy walking distance. But the design, as well as conditions on 236 and Fairfax Boulevard, are much less conducive to walking, bicycling, and shopping than they could be. The architects could have designed the prioject more intentionally to encourage walking trips and reduce traffic on these extremely clogged arterials.

Let's hope future projects on the Boulevard are more closely aligned with the creative vision of the master plan.

Development


Merrifield: Fairfax's first try at TOD

The proposed redevelopment (or reinvention) of Tysons Corner, the Silver Line, and Fairfax County's accompanying rezoning have gotten a lot of attention. But just to the south of that currently nightmarish crossroads is the county's first stab at transforming an office park and auto-dependent suburb into human-scale mixed use and transit oriented development. The revitalization of Merrifield is already a decade in the making, and if it's representative of other such large scale reinventions, folks waiting for Tysons to look like Ballston may want to get a Snickers bar.

The new development closely follows the original 2000 Suburban Center Study. The county formally adopted elements of that study in 2003. Merrifield has an existing heavy rail transit station, but saw little to no community opposition, as the existing buildings are warehouses and auto-body shops.

It still takes quite a bit of imagination to see the long term vision from walking around the area. Today, it is just a sliver of what could be, abruptly terminated and transitioned to what was before. It's cool to look at, but not really fun to walk around. Despite its superior location at a crossroads of the Beltway, Lee Hwy, Route 50, I-66, and Gallows Road, and essentially at the geographical center of population for Fairfax County), the Merrifield revitalization hasn't yet created the spark to ignite development.

Community opposition squashed plans for a privately-funded, 8,000-seat minor league ballpark and adjacent mid-rise residential on the Dunn Loring Metro parking lot in 2000. Since then, nothing has catalyzed a gold rush or moved the area into the collective consciousness. Ironically, even the opposition hasn't put the area on the map. There were no protests, no fun color drawings in the newspaper like Tysons, and no maps of potential transit lines for people to ponder.

Fairfax County is now trying to get things moving by allowing developers to borrow money against future real estate taxes. They're trying to start with the proposed "Mosaic District" project, formerly Merrifield Town Center. The design of the project itself seems to incorporate all the right elements of density, mixed uses, and streetscapes, but the TIF funding depends on real estate values contining to rise. Now, they are going down. Way down.

Rather than a de facto Ponzi scheme as a catalyst, Fairfax County should pick up where it left off in 2000 with its study for light rail from Tysons to Merrifield and beyond. A Gallows Road Light Rail starter line to Tysons and Fairfax Hospital would take advantage of several factors:

  1. Federal Infrastructure Stimulus Dollars could be used instead of relying on risky real estate values.
  2. It would connect planned development (like Mosaic) with the existing underused metro station, thus maximizing investment dollars spent now and in the past.
  3. There's already a right-of-way been set aside all along Gallows for future expansion to 3 lanes in each direction. This of course should be used for mass transit. No more ROW would need to be purchased.
  4. It would connect the largest business district in Northern Virginia (Tysons) with the 4th largest.
  5. The line would be relatively short, but serve quite a bit of development, again maximizing dollars spent to length of track laid.
  6. It would terminate at the Virginia Power ROW. In the future, the line could be extended to Burke VRE and to Annandale/Van Dorn Metro (with a new connection to VRE).

For another jump start, Fairfax could help fund a George Mason University Medical School across the street from the Fairfax hospital mega-complex on the existing under-used Mobil headquarters property. Take the quasi-city in and around Fairfax Hospital and give it a sense of place (along with a light rail stop). GMU could even incorporate their bioethics and bio defense schools into the project, giving the creative minds drawn to the academic endeavor an urban creative experience to further entice them to plant seeds in the community.

Furthermore, going back to Merrifield's position as the geographic and population center of Fairfax County, how about selling off the enclosed mall style county headquarters and property to the highest bidder, and building a new urban mixed use County Government Center on the Merrifield /Dunn Loring Metro property? The county could even take the elementary school it owns adjacent to the Metro station and build a bridge to connect the Metro ticketing area to that side of I-66. If we can spend $5 billion to extend metro to Tysons and Reston, let's maximize our existing infrastructure. Metro is expensive. Let's get what we can out of it like Arlington has.

Any of these three catalysts would make more sense than using public tax dollars to roll the dice on real estate values rising. At the moment, that's a very bad bet.

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