Fairlee Returns to Planning Commission

Fairlee Returns to Planning Commission

In split vote, working group approves new plan.

Peter Slivka expects Thursday night to be a long night. Slivka, the president of the Circle Woods Citizens' Association plans to be one of at least 40 people to testify that evening before the Planning Commission on a contentious development proposal in the Fairlee neighborhood next to the Vienna/Fairfax Metro station. The plan, brought forward by developer Pulte Homes, would put 2,350 units as well as an office building and shops on the site of an old single-family homes neighborhood on Fairlee Drive.

The hearing, Slivka said, will correct one glaring mistake in the way the proposal has been handled by the county.

"Nobody's ever listening. The people that are living next to it are going to be the most affected, but we're not being heard on this."

THE PROPOSAL has been through several iterations over the past year. When Pulte first approached the county last summer with its original plan to redevelop the area, Slivka and his neighbors objected that the developer's map showed a new four-lane road connecting Vaden Drive to Lee Highway right next to his neighborhood. A buffer of trees separating Circle Woods and Fairlee would be substantially thinned to make way for the road, Circle Woods residents said. In recognition of the controversy, Linda Smyth, then serving as Providence District planning commissioner, deferred the application and set up a working group to discuss the project.

After nine months of meetings, the proposal has been refined considerably, according to Richard Bochner, a resident of Virginia Center who chaired the working group.

"In terms of its design we think its benefits outweigh the detriments," he said. He cited the project's proximity of the Metro, its pedestrian connections to the station, the retail and office space it aims to provide and a new stormwater management pond as advantages.

"All of these things combine to make it a good project and we realize in order to make these things a real transit oriented development you've got to focus a lot of the density within a quarter mile of the station."

BUT SLIVKA, who also served on the working group, said the new proposal is "much worse" than the old one.

For instance, the new stormwater management pond would be carved out of East Blake Lane Park, which residents of his neighborhood use.

Taking away parkland for a pond "has really made so many people upset," said Slivka. "There's been no public hearing on that."

The new plan also calls for an extension of Circle Woods Drive, the road that bisects the Circle Woods neighborhood, something residents oppose, said Slivka.

"That was always off the table and the county knew that and somehow they threw it back in."

Traffic will grind to halt on Lee Highway and Metro cars will be overflowing when all the new residents move in, he predicted.

Bochner noted that the plan includes a proposal to reduce single-occupant car trips by 32 percent thanks to carpools, flexcar, Metro ridership and telecommuting facilities.

At the same time, there are other high-rise developments in the area, such as Circle Towers, meaning that the Fairlee buildings won't look out of context.

"Whether they're 10 stories or 14 stories doesn't make a heck of a lot of difference," said Bochner.

Slivka voted against the new plan during working group meetings but was outvoted by other communities represented that are not as close to Fairlee.

SMYTH, NOW the Democratic Supervisor representing Providence District, praised some of the changes.

"I think it has improved," she said. "Particularly some aspects like pedestrian access. That's one thing the working group really focused on."

But Smyth also warned that the final project could change between now and the time it comes before the Board of Supervisors on Sept. 27.

The rationale behind high-rise residential buildings and office towers near the Metro station is that residents will be less dependent on their cars to go to work and to shop. For that reason, Smyth said, it is vital that pedestrian connections between the new neighborhood and the Metro be adequate.

But it is unclear to what extent the final project will look like the plan. Slivka said he was particularly concerned that the office building and the retail space won't be built. Other parcels near the Vienna/Fairfax Metro zoned for retail or office space have been rezoned for residential in recent years because of the commercial real estate market's comparative weakness compared to the booming residential market.

"It should be a phased approach," said Slivka. "They're letting the developer build whatever he wants."