In March 2018, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the Embark Richmond Highway plan to bring more density to this eight-mile stretch of road that stems from the Huntington Metro Station. The revised plan aims to do this through medium and high-rise housing, more targeted retail and restaurants, and perhaps most importantly, a bus rapid transit (BRT) system.
So what’s in store for 2019 now that this plan has been approved? The Virginia Department of Transportation will host a public hearing in the spring to discuss its plans to widen Richmond Highway and incorporate bike lanes and better sidewalks, as well as its part in ensuring there is enough room for BRT. Once its designs are approved, it will begin acquiring the property it needs to expand the road.
Additionally, Fairfax County will discuss whether two pending applications for a gas station at a Costco and a new Wendy’s (the old Wendy’s was closed and will be replaced with housing) will qualify as “interim” businesses. The county considers “interim” to be businesses that won’t impede a pedestrian and cyclist-friendly future, but would still contribute to the local economy.
Aside from this, the plan and recent events have shed light on what the county is likely to (or should) discuss this year. Here are seven predictions:
1. Bus Rapid Transit design: Preliminary designing for Phase I of the BRT, which will cover the Huntington Metro Station to Hybla Valley, is underway. Construction is still a few years away, but getting approval for BRT and taking the first steps to design it are victories for good urbanism, and should ease congestion and unlock alternatives to driving for residents. Improvements for sidewalks and bikes are also in the works.
2. How to replace or add businesses to the corridor, which is divided into six Community Business Centers. The county intends to connect these centers to the BRT through consistent signage, walking paths, and other signifiers. It recently broached this topic at a charrette on December 8. The corridor has significant Spanish-speaking populations, as well as many people who speak Indo-European languages, Asian and Pacific Islander languages, and other languages besides English, and it will be important to carefully evaluate local businesses that address the needs of these communities, as well as businesses that provide basic services like laundromats.
3. Corridor identity: What should Richmond Highway look like, and what kind of feelings should it invoke? How should it define the individual neighborhoods that each have their own interesting history while making it clear the corridor is a valuable part of Fairfax County? This has been an issue for years (GGWash discussed it back in 2012).
The Riverside apts will add buildings to their parking lots. A trail will connect to the new levee trail. The county will think about how it can connect to the Wilson bridge. The aim is to make the rest “relatively dense.” It’s rated for 1.65 FAR but may be approved for 2.0 FAR. pic.twitter.com/VqdHdlKZ7k— Joanne Tang (@joanneliveshere) December 8, 2018
4. How to make Richmond Highway unique? In the previously-mentioned charrette, one resident in my group bemoaned that the corridor’s close ties and proximity to George Washington’s Mount Vernon have been overshadowed by Old Town Alexandria despite the corridor being closer to the historic home, because Alexandria City has been better at advertising.
One thing that could help with that right now is to rebrand the Fairfax Connector 101 bus to be the Mount Vernon bus. Of course, it already says Mount Vernon on the bus because that’s the terminating point on the route, but wouldn’t it be better to advertise Mount Vernon itself on the side of the bus? Tourists already using the Huntington Metro Station would perhaps be more inclined to take the 101 bus than the shuttle and tour services coming out of DC or Old Town.
5. Affordable housing: Southeast Fairfax County has a mix of housing options and occupies a prime location by Huntington Metro Station, which acts as a gateway to the corridor (in fact, the the CBC next to the station is called North Gateway). As the Coalition for Smarter Growth indicated in its 2017 report on the corridor, ensuring the corridor has adequate affordable housing is vital to ensuring many different kinds of people can afford to live here, not just those with a large bank account. The county should focus on this in order to avoid pricing people out of the corridor and into other parts of the county farther from transit and with more sprawl.
A look at the neighborhoods along the corridor reveal striking differences. In Hybla Valley, 16.1% of residents are below the poverty line and in Woodlawn, 15.6% of residents are below poverty. County-wide, 6.1% of residents are below poverty. Hybla Valley and Woodlawn are also predominantly black and Hispanic, versus Mt. Vernon, which is majority white and 6.5% of residents are below poverty.
If affordable housing is to be a priority, focusing on areas of greatest need will be important. As Latisha Johnson recently wrote, in Fairfax County, “a person would need to earn $71,720 annually or work 190 hours at the minimum wage rate to afford a two-bedroom apartment or earn $62,440, or work 166 hours to afford a one-bedroom apartment.” According to the county's Community Profiles tool, more households in Hybla Valley and Woodlawn make less than $75,000.
6. The impact of HQ2: HQ2 won’t necessarily exacerbate housing issues that have already existed for some time, like the rising cost of housing, but its presence will sustain the local real estate market and keep rents high. When Amazon workers start arriving, they’ll want to live somewhere with amenities like easy access to transit and grocery stores, gyms, and other retail. Right now, that’s likely to be Crystal City, Pentagon City, Potomac Yard, DC, and perhaps Old Town. In the future, could it be the corridor?
Maybe, but it’ll require a lot of work. The county needs to be urgent about progress if it wants to get in on the ground floor and not get left behind. Like with any other part of the region, a delicate balance is required. The corridor is pretty affordable right now, but that’s partly because it hasn't had much demand for growth. It lacks the kinds of amenities, new construction, and density that facilitates growth and brings in more residents while providing current residents with more resources.
Growth is coming and is much-needed. The corridor can’t stay the way it is right now, not if it is to be a desirable place to live and work for many years into future. Though Richmond Highway isn’t going anywhere, so much emphasis on driving isn’t helping anyone in the long run. BRT is going to help usher in new buildings and more housing, and give people more options for getting around.
7. Adding density: When I look at the housing information for each neighborhood, it’s clear what the challenges are. For example, Huntington has more apartments and condos taller than nine stories, whereas Hybla Valley is dominated by buildings one to four stories. In contrast, Mt. Vernon has zero apartment or condo buildings taller than four stories, relatively few one to four-story buildings, and lots of single family homes.
Having a mix of housing types and higher density across the corridor, especially in places where affordable housing is an issue, is critical. More density close to Huntington Metro Station, along with BRT so fewer people feel the need to drive to the metro station, will be critical and even though BRT won’t be available for a few years, it will be important to get residents on board early and normalize the idea that it’s okay to live around a lot more other people.