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Changing Lee Highway to Fairfax Boulevard

Fairfax City Council approves name change for Lee Highway and the concept of a Business Improvement District for the strip.

Located several miles to the west of Fairfax is the newly built Fairfax Corner, a gleaming shopping center with big movie screens and inviting storefronts and sidewalks.

While Fairfax Corner may be a good place to catch the latest flick, the city wants the traffic going to that destination to stop at businesses along Lee Highway. That was one of the reasons why the city has explored revitalizing Lee Highway over the next several years.

"We're competing with the Wegman's, aren't we?" said Allen Griffith, referring to the supermarket that will open in Fairfax Corner in the fall.

Griffith was one of several citizens at the Fairfax City Council's Tuesday meeting who spoke in favor of the creation of a Business Improvement District (BID) for Lee Highway, The aim of the BID is to revitalize the strip through economic and business development, promotional activities, physical improvements and master plans.

Included in the proposal for the BID was a supplemental tax of 12.5 cents per $100 assessed value, which would have funded the programs and the governing organization for the BID.

"Highway 50/29 is our city's economic engine. And it must compete," said Dale Lestina, chair of the city's Economic Development Authority, who also sat on the task force that created the BID proposal. "It's beginning to show its age and wear."

But instead of fully adopting the proposal, City Council members voted unanimously for a compromise, in response to concerns about the tax and a need for greater details on how the projects would be measured.

THE COMPROMISE tabled the tax and allotted a one-time expense of $250,000 from the FY ‘04-05 budget for the creation of a Council-appointed committee in charge of bringing the BID into fruition. The two residential properties included in the original district boundaries, the Fox Croft Colony Condos and the Fairfax Garden Apartments on Cedar Avenue, would be excluded from the BID.

This is "a good first step that needs to be amplified as we move along," said Council member Joan Cross.

Lestina explained that the task force, which has been meeting at least weekly during the past two years, conducted eight public outreach meetings this March, prior to the Council's consideration of the proposal.

At the meetings, Lestina said landowners and businesses overwhelmingly supported the creation of BID, which many saw as a way of prevent Lee Highway from becoming a Route 1.

"We are convinced it's well worth the investment," Lestina said.

The citizens and landowners speaking at Tuesday's hearing were divided on the BID proposal. While almost all who spoke favored a BID, some were concerned about tax increases or how the money would be spent.

Steve Lomicka, chairman of the Central Fairfax Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber supported the idea of a BID, but it wanted more details. He asked if the BID could be zoned by objective vs. an ordinance, which is what the proposal called for. He added that the Chamber was not opposed to the tax, since the revenue would need to go to the BID instead of the whole city.

Other citizens countered that even if the supplemental tax were added onto the real estate tax, the overall rate would still be lower than Fairfax County and other surrounding jurisdictions.

With the supplemental tax, the rate would have been $1.025, vs. $1.16 in Fairfax County, $1.48 in Vienna or $1.13 in Falls Church.

"We feel in the long term, it will pay dividends," said Charles Stringfellow, president of the Fairfax City Auto Dealers Association.

After hearing testimony, the Council agreed to the motion set forth by Council member Scott Silverthorne, which tabled the tax but proceeded with the creation of a committee that would examine implementing the BID.

"It's a long process. It's not going to be solved in the next couple of months or years," said Council member Gary Rasmussen, who added that he would have been willing to move forward with the full proposal.

Council member Patrice Winter said, "We want to move this project forward. ... All the areas around us have taken a leap and improved their aging structures."

HAND-IN-HAND with the decision about the BID was a proposal to change the name of Lee Highway as it runs through Fairfax City to "Fairfax Boulevard." The name change was to give the strip an identity and make it easier to mark and find, according to Lestina.

While Lestina said the property owners and businesses attending the outreach meetings generally favored the name change, several citizens at Tuesday's meeting spoke out against it. The dissenters argued that the name change would dishonor Robert E. Lee, for whom the strip is named. Furthermore, they said the name change would confuse people, break the continuity of Lee Highway as it runs from Arlington to Danville, and require businesses to change their stationery and Web sites.

Supporters of the name change said it would help the city and business brand the strip as a Fairfax destination. One argued that even though Route 123 changes names throughout Northern Virginia, a person can identify where he is if the street sign says Dolley Madison Boulevard, Chain Bridge Road, Maple Avenue or Ox Road.

"It needs to be separated out as its own separate identity," said Terri Simmons, who attended an outreach meeting and thought the name change was not disrespectful to Robert E. Lee.

The Council approved the name change, although it changed the date when it would take effect from July 2005 to January 2006. Fairfax mayor Rob Lederer added that the city would not be neglecting its history by changing the name, since so many locations in Fairfax are identified by Civil War names and since the city tries to honor its history through events like the walking tours and the Civil War Weekend.

The Council also approved the following items:

* The Council supported an ordinance that would place the renovations of Lanier Middle and Fairfax High School in a bond referendum this November. The $86.8 million costs would be paid over 30 years.

"Fairfax High School is a great old lady, but she's aging and needs a facelift," said Tobey Sorenson, president of Fairfax High School's PTSA, in support of the bond referendum.

* The Council decided to purchase 9817 Ashby Road for open space.

* The Council appropriated $400,000 for Fairfax Circle short-term improvements. The improvements would improve pedestrian safety and traffic flow at the Circle. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) will reimburse the city $399,200, so the final cost to the city will be $800.