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.
Seven years ago the city completed — but did not adopt — the 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.
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.