Schools Get Makeovers
W.T. Woodson High School, Fairfax High School and Lanier Middle School are all undergoing extensive renovations, all of which have been in the planning stages for years. Crews broke ground at Woodson and Lanier last year, and at Fairfax High School in 2005.
Fairfax High’s completion date set for the fall of 2007. It includes about 86,000 square feet of additional classroom space, a new science wing and updated rehearsal rooms. The total square footage of the school will be 410,000 once the project is complete. Fairfax High School also received a new roof, windows, ceilings and electrical infrastructure for new technologies.
Woodson’s project bid came in $20 million over budget, so the contract was re-bid last September. A groundbreaking ceremony took place in June 2006, even though the actual construction didn’t begin until October. School Board members assure the 2009 completion date will not be affected, even though the project began about three months later than scheduled.
Lanier Middle School’s construction began in March 2006, with the construction of temporary exits, a temporary bus entrance and the start of the new addition, staircase, electric room and mechanical spaces. Phase one is now finished, which included the installation of three new quads, renovations of the second story along Bevan Drive and the auditorium, opening the new front parking lot and Kiss & Ride. Crews are now working to complete the auditorium, second story, and the renovations to the kitchen, band room, cafeteria, technology classrooms and bathrooms.
Lamb Center Can’t Find New Home
The City of Fairfax terminated a purchase agreement, Tuesday, Jan. 9, for a $2.6 million property in Merrifield that would have been the Lamb Center’s new home.
Negotiations over the property, at 2924 Telestar Court, began discreetly last fall. City Council met with staff to discuss whether the location would have been a good prospect to house the Lamb Center, a homeless day shelter that provides meals, job training and spiritual guidance.
The city decided to put up $2.6 million to purchase the property, until the center could incorporate as a nonprofit organization and buy it back. When Merrifield residents heard about it, they united to stop what they say was a city desperate to dump its problem elsewhere — an accusation city officials have denied.
“We’re just very upset that they chose to deceive people,” said Ekrem Sarper, president of the Merrifield Citizens Association, a group that mobilized to oppose the Lamb Center’s relocation to Telestar Court.
Merrifield residents immediately became suspicious as to why the city would be so generous with its money just to move the Lamb Center. Sarper accessed e-mail exchanges between council members last year through the state’s Freedom of Information Act. In the 1,300 pages of e-mails and city documents obtained, several council members expressed a strong desire to quickly move the Lamb Center out of its current location on Fairfax Circle.
The hypothermia program, not the Lamb Center, is what Mayor Robert Lederer said he and his colleagues were so urgently trying to move out of the city. A spike in crime also occurred around that time, which Bob Wyatt, executive director of the Lamb Center, attributes to the hypothermia guests that were being bused into the city.
The Lamb Center remains at its Fairfax Circle location, but the City has not given up on trying to find it a new home. City officials have not announced new relocation possibilities, but officials and the Lamb Center maintain that there’s a need for a larger facility.
City To Go Green
The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, or DRPT, is providing a $3 million grant to the City that will allow the City to replace six of its 12 CUE buses with hybrids. DRPT also provided funding to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission for a pilot project testing the benefit of installing hydrogen fuel injectors in public buses. The city is also the recipient of that project grant, which would be the first-ever use of the injectors in the United States.
The city replaces six of its buses every 10 years, said Alex Verzosa, the city’s transportation director. So instead of buying six more diesel buses in 2008, the city requested a grant about a year ago to turn public transportation green.
“Anything we can contribute to reduce emissions helps everybody,” said Verzosa.
The city, and all of Northern Virginia, is in a nonattainment area — an area that does not meet the national primary or secondary ambient air quality standard, as classified by the Environmental Protection Agency. So fuel efficiency, while important, is not as important as reducing emissions, said Verzosa.
The six new hybrids cost more than $500,000 each, as opposed to the $325,000 it costs for the current diesel buses. The hybrids will also burn diesel fuel, but at a much cleaner and slower rate. The manufacturer claims the city will save more than 50 percent in fuel, but Verzosa said the city isn’t looking at the switch just in terms of gas mileage. The city wants to be a leader in terms of emissions reductions, and public transportation is a great way to set an example, he said.
As for the fuel injectors, emissions reductions also take priority over fuel economy. The injectors could reduce tailpipe emissions by about 50 percent.
Church Lawsuit Continues
Truro Church, along with several other churches in Northern Virginia, split off from the U.S. Episcopal Church and the Diocese last December and joined the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, or CANA— an Anglican missionary effort sponsored by the Church of Nigeria. The split came after the consecration of a gay bishop in New Hampshire in 2003, followed by Episcopal actions that more orthodox believers saw as shifts from scripture.
CANA affiliates with the Anglican District of Virginia, or ADV, which includes 14 CANA churches and four churches affiliated with the Church of Uganda. Presently, the district has about 6,000 members.
The split has created tension between the CANA and the Episcopalians, especially over who owns the property rights at the former Episcopal churches. The Diocese recently added the names of volunteer vestry members to its lawsuits against the churches — a move the CANA churches believe is meant for intimidation purposes only.
“The ADV churches think the Diocese and the Episcopal Church have nothing to gain from this action,” said Kelly Oliver, spokesperson for the ADV.
When several of the ADV churches initiated a transfer of the ownership of their properties in January, from the Diocese to ADV, the Diocese responded by filing suits claiming its right to the properties. In those suits, some vestry members were specifically named, but many “John Does” and “Jane Does” were listed as placeholder names. That was done because the Diocese knew the names of some, but not all the vestry members, said Patrick Getlein, spokesperson for the Diocese, in an e-mail to the Connection. Now that it has learned more names, the Diocese recently took action to add those specific names to the suits, he said.
Jim Oakes, senior warden of Truro Church, said the notion they didn’t know the names of the members until now is just “silly.”
The ADV filed a plea and bar, asking that the suits against the named individuals be dismissed, said Oakes. The judge is expected to rule on that in August. That ruling will not deal with the merits of the property dispute, but just with the naming of the defendants.
New Buildings for City Employees
The City’s police department moved into its new facility off Old Lee Highway late last year, and many City Hall offices relocated to the brand new City Hall annex. Renovations to the 45-year-old City Hall building began in January, and are nearly complete. The new buildings and the renovation were part of a $20 million bond approved by voters in 2001. The offices that the renovated building will house were temporarily relocated to the John C. Wood Center, Friday, Jan. 5. The Commissioner of the Revenue, Finance, Personnel, Real Estate Assessments and Treasurer's offices are all expected to return to the renovated City Hall building in the coming months. At that time, the Wood Center will be demolished to make way for the new police station's parking lot.
Old Town Village
A mixed-use downtown development being constructed on the site of the former post office is a major part of the ongoing development in Fairfax. The project, called Old Town Village, will include more than 100,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and office space, and residential condominiums with a public plaza in the center of it all. The pedestrian-friendly village will be a stone’s throw from the new Fairfax City Regional Library, which is also currently under construction at the corner of North Street and Old Lee Highway.
"The city is undergoing a renaissance, and you feel it with the pride and effort we've put into the downtown," said City Councilmember Scott Silverthorne.
When the new library is completed, the current library on Route 123 will be torn down and developed into at least 80 upscale residential condominium units. Old Town Village will also include a 700-space public parking garage. The project is set for completion sometime in late 2007 and, according to city councilmembers, it won’t undermine the small-town feel of the city. The buildings are both up already though, and cast large shadows over the roads they border due to their size and scale, and the nature of the sloped property they’re located on.
City Plays Ball
The City Council approved a 4-acre athletic park on the stretch of green space just north of Fairfax Boulevard, after hearing hours of testimony on several occasions from neighbors who wanted the land to be left untouched.
The approval means the city would construct a large, rectangular soccer field on the Stafford West property, equipped with onsite parking, play areas and trails. The Stafford West property, located behind the KFC and Outback Steakhouse near the intersection of Stafford Drive and Fairfax Boulevard, is about 14 acres in size. The Stafford East property, located just behind a corporate building on the east side of Stafford Drive, is another 9 acres. Combined, about 19 acres of green space would still be left in its natural state, or about 80 percent of the total area.
Nearby residents complained that environmental, storm-water drainage, traffic and noise concerns are too high for the one-field proposal. Negative environmental impact was a common theme among those in opposition, but city staff disagreed about the impacts based on studies it conducted with various consultants.
For the opponents of this project, it was all about the preservation of wildlife habitat, wetlands, trees and open space. They maintained they were not a group of “NIMBY’s (not-in-my-backyard protesters),” with ulterior motives, but a group of folks who wanted to see the city protect and preserve a rare plot of open land.
“We’ve played out a very difficult and contentious argument,” said Councilmember Gary Rasmussen. “But in the end, we’ve come down to what most people consider a pretty good position.”
The city should begin construction on the field sometime this year. The proposal also includes improvements to existing fields in the city, at Draper Drive Park, Providence Park and the Green Acres property.
City Breaks Ground on Blenheim
The journey that historians and Civil War buffs went through in order to preserve the Blenheim property, located at 3610 Old Lee Highway, had taken nearly nine years, but they reached an important milestone, Saturday, June 2, 2007. The historians and guests celebrated the groundbreaking ceremony for the work that historians hope will make Blenheim a historic tourist destination.
“We’ve just never given up,” said Hildie Carney, the former president of the city’s historical society and an advocate for Blenheim’s preservation.
From dates and signatures, to regiments, drawings and even pornography, Civil War soldiers used graphite and charcoal to decorate the walls in the historic Blenheim house. The city bought Blenheim in 1999 to preserve it as a museum and park, which will include an interpretive center, walking trails, a rain garden for stormwater detention, an outdoor events area and demonstration areas. The interpretive center will feature recreations of the Blenheim house walls and graffiti.
Carney, David Meyer, Brad Preiss, Bill Jayne and Andrea Loewenwarter were all neighbors of Blenheim. The group saw an opportunity for the city when the estate’s beneficiaries wanted to sell the property that had remained in their family’s possession for nearly 140 years.
That was in 1998, just after the city watched one of its last large pieces of land turn into development of single-family homes. The size of the land for the Farrcroft development was too large, and too expensive, for the city to intervene, said Preiss. But Blenheim was just 12-acres — still sizable, but within reach for the city, he said.
The office of historic resources completed a master plan for the site in December 2003, which lays out the historical significance of Blenheim. It includes details about the owners of the home, beginning with the prominent Willcoxon family, who built the home between 1857 and 1859 to replace a previous home on the property that had burned down. During the Civil War, the home became well known to both Union and Confederate soldiers because of its location along a major military access road, the Fairfax Court House-Falls Church Road.
Graffiti started showing up on the walls around March 1862, extending through the mid-20th century, according to the master plan. Historians think the home was used as a hospital during the war, based on research. It is also thought that the farm home was used as temporary barracks by soldiers as they passed through.
The group believes the site will become a destination point for people from all over the country. The National Register of Historic Places added Blenheim in 2001, citing its significant associations with architecture and social history. The museum, interpretive center and grounds will serve as a memory of that history. For the five preservationists that worked so hard to save it, it serves as a memory of their hard work and dedication to not only saving Fairfax’s history, but also becoming it.
Fairfax Envisions the Future
The City of Fairfax hired consultants to craft a master plan for the city’s main thoroughfare: Route 50, also known as Fairfax Boulevard. The City Council voted to create the Fairfax Boulevard Business Improvement District (BID) in 2005, and the businesses in the BID agreed to pay a special tax every year to fund its efforts. The BID includes businesses along Route 50, Main Street, Jermantown Road and Route 29.
The 3 1/2-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 the town planners to craft a master plan that would govern future development.
The firm, Dover, Kohl and Partners, from Miami, Fla., is in the final stages of writing the plan. Victor Dover, a partner with the planning firm, presented some optimistic visions for Fairfax Boulevard in recent months. City officials have expressed some excitement in the boulevard’s potential, but some are weary about how realistic the plan actually is.
A packed crowd gasped at the photos of what is possible — with a lot of money and time — along Fairfax Boulevard at a March 29 preliminary presentation.
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.
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
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.
The master planners will present an updated presentation about the plan in September. One was scheduled in July, but the planners postponed the presentation because the plan needed extra work before it could be presented in a finalized version. Check the city’s Web site for a notice of the rescheduled presentation, at fairfaxva.gov.
George Mason University’s place in college basketball’s Final Four in 2006 focused attention on the university. University president Alan Merten said it "put GMU on the map." Also on GMU’s map are extensive additions to the university’s Fairfax campus.
More than 30,500 students enrolled at GMU in the 2006 fall semester — the highest in the school's 34-year history. The school received more than 11,000 freshman applications for that semester, which was an 8 percent increase from the previous year. The number of out-of-state applications was up 15 percent from the previous year. The school attributed most of the newfound popularity to the basketball team's success. The school, however, was already showing continuous growth before the basketball victories, which is why GMU has so many construction projects either underway or scheduled.
“We are desperately behind in space for what we are currently trying to do,” said Merten. “If you look at amount of square feet per student, we are far behind other doctoral institutions in Virginia, and probably nationally too.”
GMU has several construction projects underway on its Fairfax campus, including residence halls, retail shops, a visual arts building and an engineering building. The added academic buildings are for the university’s two fastest-growing schools, said Merten, but the school will need more academic buildings if it wants to continue to play catch-up to compete with other institutions.
Merten said the school still won’t meet its intended square footage ratios even after all of the current construction is completed. The university doesn’t plan to assess additional future growth projects, however, until it crosses the present construction hurdle, which could take years.
George Mason University’s Fairfax campus is comprised of 675 acres, split up into three sections. The largest part of the campus is 375 acres, located to the north of Braddock Road and just east of Chain Bridge Road. Across Chain Bridge Road is another 200 acres, and the western most part of campus, is 100 acres at the northeast corner of the Braddock and Shirley Gate Road intersection. The university estimates that it will see an enrollment increase of 16 percent by 2020, and space on campus will increase 102 percent, according to recent studies.
Big Election Year
All 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for grabs in 2007. It is also an election year for the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and School Board, the Commonwealth's Attorney, Sheriff, Commissioner of the Revenue, Treasurer, Clerk of Circuit Court and Soil and Water Directors.
Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock) is running to retain her seat in November. Carey Campbell, an Independent, is challenging her seat. In the Springfield District, Supervisor Elaine McConnell (R) is retiring from her long run as supervisor in that district. Pat Herrity (R) and Mike McClanahan (D) are competing for the open seat.
J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen — a former Democratic state delegate — is running for Republican Jeannemarie Devolites Davis' seat in the 34th District of the State Senate. Northern Virginian Democrats did well in the 2006 election, but Devolites Davis' husband, Rep. Tom Davis (R-11), was able to hold onto his Republican seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. School Board Representative Janet Oleszek is challenging Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-37) in a combative State Senate race. Dels. Steve Shannon, David Bulova and David Marsden (D-41) are unchallenged in the November election.
City Business Fights for its Rights
The owners of Rain Restaurant and Lounge feel like the City of Fairfax has been unfairly discriminating against their business since it opened in March. The establishment has changed its name so the public primarily identifies it as a restaurant. But when the City Council denied a dancing and entertainment special use permit for Rain, Tuesday, June 12, it cited the establishment’s primary operation as a nightclub as a main reason for the denial. Council also felt the three zoning citations issued to the business showed its refusal to cooperate with the City Code.
Since the permit denial, Rain’s owners have tried to reassess where they went wrong, in order to reapply for, and obtain, the special use permit.
From stipulations about capacity, to details about the amount of food being served and the dress code, city officials have been coming down hard on the business. In early July, at least three city officials visited Rain and conducted separate, and short, walk-through inspections. Michelle Coleman, the city’s zoning director, said based on what city staff saw, Rain should expect another notice of violation.
The issue rests with whether a restaurant is Rain’s principal use. Some city officials think that a nightclub appears to be the primary use.
Rain’s owners can’t dictate how much food its patrons order, according to Rodolfo “Fito” Garcia, an owner and Rain’s general manager. Food is available, but whether the patrons order it is up to them, he said. He also noted that inspectors walked through the establishment late in the night, during times when patrons generally were not consuming food.
Michelle Coleman, director of planning and zoning, said the establishment is not following City Code when its primary use seems to be either a nightclub, bar or lounge. Without the dancing and entertainment permit, a restaurant should be their primary use during all hours of operation.
Rain has a pending reapplication, but the city has not scheduled the hearing for that application yet.
Real Estate Market Shifts
Buyers, sellers, brokers and lenders are experiencing a different real estate market in Northern Virginia compared to a couple years ago, and everyone is trying to anticipate the next trend. A slower market creates trends such as larger inventories, longer market-times and more price-reductions, making it a strong buyer’s market. Dave Meyers, owner of Meyers and McCabe Realtors, based in Burke, said foreclosures and short sales are the next real estate trend to look out for. Meyers said foreclosures are going to happen at alarming rates in upcoming years throughout Northern Virginia.
The City of Fairfax had three foreclosures in all of 2006, and as of July 23, 11 foreclosures have taken place. The foreclosures range all across the value scale. One foreclosure was valued at more than $950,000, and several were in the $450,000-$550,000 range. On the lower end of the scale was a condominium property.