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.
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.
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.