Imaginations ran wild when town planners showed residents computer-generated images of what Fairfax Boulevard could look like someday.
"What-if?" asked Victor Dover, a partner at Dover, Kohl and Partners, the consulting firm from Miami, Fla., hired to craft a master plan for the Route 50 corridor. "What if we could take places that you know and turn them into places you like?"
The what-ifs were plentiful and the full house at City Hall Thursday, March 29, gasped at the photos of what is possible — with a lot of money and time — along Fairfax Boulevard, also known as Route 50 and the Business Improvement District (BID). The BID was created in May 2005, and includes businesses within city limits along Lee Highway, Route 50 and parts of Main Street and Jermantown Road.
The three and a half-mile stretch of strip malls and car dealerships features many overstuffed parking lots perched in front of buildings set considerably back from the boulevard. City officials and members of the BID want to make sure the corridor remains strong, so together they decided to hire town planners to craft a master plan that would govern future development.
Town planners with the firm spent several weeks in the region getting a feel for what does and doesn't work in surrounding communities, said Margaret Flippen, senior project director with Dover, Kohl and Partners. From standing on a street corner with a radar gun, to polling members who attended a charrette Saturday, March 24, Flippen said the planners realized there are a lot of dedicated citizens in Fairfax.
In photographs depicting walkable streets and quaint storefronts, community members enjoyed window-shopping, ice-cream cones and on-street parking.
"I kept thinking I'd like to own a little shop on that street," said Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-34), who attended the presentation. "I think the city has such great potential."
TO REACH THAT POINT, though, Dover said the city's zoning regulations along the corridor need to be more cohesive. He said the city should revise them to allow for a more connected street network, street trees and sidewalks. "These are essentials, not extras," he said.
But Ross Landis, a resident in the Westmore community located just off the corridor, said there's a reason for the special permit and zoning process. He does not want the regulations to be so loose that the city loses its power to choose what's right on a case-by-case basis.
"The city puts the applicant on the hot seat, and [the application] passes muster or it doesn't," said Landis. "I don't want to see that process thrown out."
Certain chunks along the corridor are perfect for slow lanes, said Dover, which would also require zoning changes. Slow lanes almost act as frontage, or service roads, that allow local traffic to travel at slower speeds, while the main boulevard serves as a faster thoroughfare. And since the way most of these areas are currently laid out — with large parking lots in front of shopping centers and strip malls — Dover said there is room for the lanes. The alterations would change the appearance of buildings poking out of parking lots, he said.
The lanes would also provide room for bike traffic and on-street parallel parking. Landscaping would separate it from the main boulevard. Sidewalks would allow pedestrians to walk and shop, rather than just drive and park from place to place. Street networks would connect the business communities, but would minimize the possibility of intrusion into adjacent neighborhoods, said Dover.
"In order to remain viable, the city has to increase its business base and its traction to a growing business community and continue to attract people to live," said Devolites Davis.
LANDIS SAW something of concern in the photographs, though, which are just preliminary drawings of potential uses. Everything looked nice and people seemed excited about the ways the streets looked, but something was missing.
"In the 'before' picture, you could see the sky; in the 'after' picture, it was gone," said Landis.
While the building heights would also be regulated, the closer setbacks make them seem taller and decrease the sky's visibility. In the Old Town Village development under construction in downtown Fairfax, the three- and four-story buildings look much larger because they're right against the streets. Landis said the new development being built at the old Frank's Nursery site, at 10930 Fairfax Blvd., is an example that short buildings can still be attractive.
Fairfax Circle would also undergo a facelift if the preliminary renderings end up in the final plan. The circle has traffic lights that break up turning traffic from the thru lane in the center. Dover said the circle has the potential to serve as a modern roundabout, rather than a traffic circle.
"The circle can look like a proud public space, instead of a leftover," he said.
And open space will not get left behind in the process, Dover said. There are areas of the boulevard that should remain green. The point of the plan isn't to add concrete to every square inch, he said.
The best part of what Devolites Davis said she saw in the plan is its quaintness. She said the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has been more interested in the county looking like New York City, by adding high-rises to areas like Tysons Corner and Reston.
"I think Fairfax City is going to be quaint and people are going to enjoy going there," she said. "Fairfax City wants a place for people to go; that's what I love about this plan."
David Hudson, director of community development and planning, said at a budget work session, Tuesday, April 3, that he doesn't assume the City Council will sign off on the whole master plan as its presented. City Council member Scott Silverthorne and Mayor Robert Lederer agreed that it's a little early to get excited about the preliminary plans. Council members did inquire about Hudson's staff capabilities though, since the consultants' recommended zoning changes would add a lot of extra work load. Staff is in the process of preparing a budget memo for Council members on whether some of the workload could be contracted out or whether new employees would be necessary.
"We need to wait and see what [the consultants] give us," said Lederer.