If everything works just perfectly, the MetroWest development at the Vienna/Fairfax Metro Station will be able to reduce the amount of traffic it generates by enough to comply with the county’s comprehensive plan.
The plan change which allows the development (planned for up to 2,250 residences, 100,000 square feet of retail space and 300,000 square feet of office space), was approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors in December 2004.
As part of the change, the developer, Pulte Homes, had to show that it could reduce the amount of traffic, expressed in “trips,” by 47 percent for the residential component and 25 percent for the office component. If the trip reductions were not possible, then the size of the development would need to be reduced by a corresponding amount. The reductions only need to come from the peak hour of weekdays.
Pulte funded a study by an outside consultant, UrbanTrans, which was administered by the county to determine if the trip reduction were possible.
The scope of the study was drafted by a Pulte consultant. A 12-person committee chose which consultant to use, and five members of that committee were affiliated with Pulte. “Pulte’s very happy that the study’s showing what the developer had anticipated,” said Doug Koelemay, a Pulte spokesperson.
This study would determine not only if the reduction is possible, but exactly what measures would need to be in place in order for it to succeed.
The study, released on Friday, July 29, at about 5 p.m., shows that the trip reductions are possible. “There are ambitious numbers,” said Justin Schor of UrbanTrans. “Everything that’s being recommended has to be implemented.”
In determining how the trip reductions would work, UrbanTrans first had to determine a baseline for the number of trips. It studied the surrounding neighborhoods to find out what sort of behaviors the people who already live around the Vienna/Fairfax Metro Station exhibit.
UrbanTrans also used as a guide the industry standard, a reference book developed by the Institute of Transportation Engineers. This book provides estimates of how much traffic a development of a given size and type would typically generate if dropped into a given place. The reductions would need to come off of that number.
Not much margin exists for error. The residential component would normally be expected to generate 904 trips, which means that in order to comply with the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan, it can only actually generate 479. The study finds that it could reduce the number of trips to 446. The 33-trip difference represents only 3.6 percent room for error from the whole. [See Trip Linking.]
The office and commercial side would generate 452 trips, putting its maximum allowed at 339. The reductions would bring it down to 313. The 26-trip difference gives room for a 5.6 percent reduction from the whole.
“We feel that there’s many, many holes in this document,” said Will Elliott, speaking on behalf of Fairgrowth, a group that opposes the increased density at MetroWest.
Others agree. “There are so many things in the report that made me put a little exclamation mark in the margins,” said Laurie Cole, a member of the Vienna Town Council.
Elliott was also a member of the task force that reviewed the study prior to its release, but he was not speaking as a member of that task force. “This is not, in its current form, a document that should be used as a basis to make any decisions.”
One of Elliott’s concerns stems from the very study itself. The consultant should not have been asked if it could hit a target, Elliott said, but should have been asked to determine what amount of reduction could be expected.
UrbanTrans recommended a menu of strategies to make the trip reduction possible. Some reductions, it said will occur. These reductions will only occur after the entire project is built out, a process that could take up to 10 years. Until then, some of the reductions, for example a person who lives and works on the site (counted for 37 residential trips), would not be realized.
This has some concerned that the reductions will not all happen. The real estate market is still strong for residential sales. However, until recently, the office market had been very slow. If the office building cannot be filled, it won’t be built, Koelemay acknowledged. Some of the retail space is set to go in the first floor of the office building, meaning that it, too would not be present until the office portion is built.
Koelemay acknowledged that this presents the developers with some challenges, but said it will be possible to find office tenants.
“One of our prime concerns is how to establish this as a business location,” Koelemay said. He added that while the overall commercial market is not strong, sub-markets within those might be doing well. A location like MetroWest, he said, might appeal to small companies. “The office space won’t be so large as to discourage smaller companies,” he said.
Koelemay also pointed out that the combination of uses is really what will make the project work. Retailers count on foot traffic, and having thousands of people living and working nearby will draw them in. Companies might want to locate in the Vienna/City of Fairfax area because their workers live nearby, and because the site will be Metro accessible.
People will want to live there if they are seeking a more urban-style residence where they can walk to work and shops. One of the strategies developed by UrbanTrans addresses this issue directly. The consultant recommended marketing the development to people who already work near a Metro station, reasoning that they will be more likely to use Metro for their commute.
“I think deep down, what we fear the most is that this will be just another housing development,” Koelemay said.
Cole finds this to be one of the overarching problems with the study. Fairfax County is a suburban area, she says, and people who want a more urban experience will live in Washington or Arlington.
People who move to MetroWest will still be dependent on their cars, she said. “The report thinks that in 60 acres they can just completely change how Fairfax County is,” Cole said.
A public hearing for the rezoning application for MetroWest is tentatively scheduled for December.
To view the study in full (more than 250 pages) visit www.fairleemetrowest-tdm.com.