<sh>Town Green Becoming Reality
<bt>Construction is well underway on the Vienna Town Green, for which planning was begun nearly three years ago. The Wright building, which had occupied the block near the intersection of Maple Avenue and the W&OD Trail, where the park is being built, was razed in April, and a groundbreaking to mark the beginning of construction was held in September.
Since then, much earth has been moved, concrete has been poured, and construction of a decorative fountain and restroom facilities are in progress. Plants and trees will be planted in the spring, and the park is slated to open on Mother's Day of this year, to coincide with the Jamestown 2007 celebration.
In addition to the fountain and restrooms, the Town Green will include an amphitheater stage, a paved plaza, a new Holiday Tree and wireless Internet access. The Freeman House and the small, historic library will remain on the property. Sumter Construction Corporation is building the park on a $1.5 million contract.
<sh>Choices for Voters
<bt>Last year marked Vienna's first contested mayoral election in 16 years. Town Council member and former state delegate George Lovelace challenged Mayor Jane Seeman and was defeated, receiving 922 votes to Seeman's 1,358. Lovelace remains on the Town Council, as his seat was not up for re-election last year.
Two citizens vied for seats on the Town Council, running against the three council members who were up for re-election — Laurie Cole, Edythe Kelleher and Mike Polychrones. Challengers Susan Stich and Blair Jenkins each received about half the average number of votes garnered by the three incumbent council members. Kelleher was the election's biggest vote-getter, with 1,728 votes.
Voter turnout, at 23 percent, was the highest in 14 years, although nowhere near the 33 percent turnout for the last contested mayoral election, in which residents re-elected Mayor Charles Robinson over challenger Michael Covel.
Since the election, Councilmember Sydney Verinder resigned, as he will be moving out of town, and Dan Dellinger, who narrowly missed being elected to the council in 2003, was appointed to take his place. This year, Lovelace and Councilmember Maud Robinson will be up for re-election, and Dellinger will also be up for election.
<sh>Changes in Downtown Oakton
<bt>A library is being built, two parks are planned, and a historic schoolhouse will be relocated to make room for a bank.
The Oakton Library is expected to be completed in late summer or early fall, said Providence District Supervisor Linda Smyth. "And if the weather holds out during the winter, who knows? Maybe we'll have it done sooner," she added. This 27th branch of the Fairfax County Public Library will be the first branch in the Providence District and is being built near the south end of Hunter Mill Road, next door to the Unity of Fairfax Church.
The developer, Hearthstone Vanguard, which owned the land on which the library is being built, gave the three acres to the county in 2000, as part of a deal that would allow the company to develop surrounding acreage. Hearthstone Vanguard has since sold the rest of the land. The 2004 library bond referendum included the $8 million that is funding the branch's construction, and the ground was broken in April of last year.
Oakton Library will include 17,000 feet of floor space, 120 parking spaces and 75,000 books. It is expected to take some of the pressure off of Fairfax City Regional Library, as well as Vienna's Patrick Henry Library, which is the busiest branch in the county.
ALL THAT IS LEFT of the three historic buildings that sat at the intersection of Hunter Mill and Chain Bridge roads is the main body of the old schoolhouse, which formerly housed Appalachian Outfitters. The schoolhouse is scheduled to be moved this Sunday, Jan. 7 to the former Corbalis property, which has been masterplanned as a park. The old, two-story general store and the tiny residential building that surrounded the schoolhouse, as well as the building's two large additions, have been demolished. Taking the place of these old buildings will be a Chevy Chase Bank.
While the citizens' group Friends of Oakton Schoolhouse fought to have Chevy Chase fund the building's move to the new park, members of the Hunter Mill Defense League citizens' group tried to keep the old buildings where they stood, as part of Oakton's historic district. Defense League members insisted that the National Historic Preservation Act required the bank to preserve the buildings if at all possible, but Chevy Chase said it could not build a standard bank with a drive-through if it was sharing the lot with the schoolhouse and general store. Ultimately, state and county officials decided they would be pleased just to see the schoolhouse preserved.
Under the current agreement, Chevy Chase is funding the relocation and restoration of the schoolhouse and the engineering work for Oakton Park and is also giving $100,000 to Friends of Oakton Schoolhouse and another $100,000 to the Fairfax County Park Authority to cover additional expenses.
NONETHELESS, SAID SMYTH, the Park Authority is still trying to secure funding for the park's construction. The 10-acre park will include a playing field, a playground, trails, parking and possibly a picnic shelter. While funding is being sought, the schoolhouse will sit in a temporary location near a temporary parking lot, said Smyth.
Another amenity for the park being engineered by Chevy Chase is a roundabout at the entrance, which will be the first manifestation of the traffic-calming measures that have been advocated for Hunter Mill Road.
Also being planned is a park on Lawyers Road, about a mile east of Hunter Mill Road, which would sit on a 14-acre plot currently owned by Fairfax County Public Schools. The school system decided it would not need a school there, so the Park Authority took a long-term lease on the land and began a master planning process in May of 2005. The plan includes a soccer field, a parking lot, play areas, a trail loop and a picnic area. However, the park is yet to be funded.
<sh>Traffic Calming on Hunter Mill
<bt>Last year was a momentous one for Hunter Mill Road, although no physical changes were made to the roadway. The 7.2-mile, two-lane road, which winds and dips from central Reston to the heart of Oakton, has become a major artery, prompting safety and traffic management problems. Residents along Hunter Mill have fought for years to maintain its character as a two-lane road, as the roadbed is older than the country and is dotted with historic landmarks, making it an official Virginia Byway eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
A traffic-calming study, for which $75,000 was secured in 2000, was finally carried out last year, with a draft of the study presented to the Board of Supervisors in October and a final draft to be presented sometime soon, said Supervisor Linda Smyth. The study was undertaken by the consulting firm Draper Aden Associates, who subcontracted international roundabout expert Michael Wallwork of Alternate Street Design.
Wallwork and Draper Aden have recommended a dozen roundabouts along the length of the road, as well as crosswalks, traffic islands, landscaping and the widening of the one-lane bridge over Colvin Run. Also being considered are pedestrian and bike paths. However, the study includes neither a price estimate for construction nor specific engineering designs for the measures it proposes. Engineering work would be the next phase in the project.
"REMEMBER, THIS IS for a long-term project," said Smyth. "It will always be a matter of finding funding." She said traffic-calming measures, assuming they are approved by the Board of Supervisors, would likely be implemented one piece at a time. It remains to be seen, said Smyth, whether the work can be done via development proffers, although there are no developments currently planned along the stretch of road in the Providence District, "or if this is something that's going to have to be done in other, creative ways."
The Board of Supervisors also elected, in a close vote in late July, to keep Hunter Mill a two-lane road as far south as Mystic Meadow Way, where the Oakton Park entrance will be. Previously, the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan had designated the road to be widened to four lanes from Vale Road south.
At the very beginning of last year, on Jan. 3, a bid by the Hunter Mill Road Traffic Calming Committee to have trucks carrying hazardous materials banned from the road was rejected by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). However, VDOT's study was found to contain some factual errors, and Del. Steve Shannon (D-35) called for a new study to be done.
<sh>Rezoning Maple Avenue?
<bt>In May, Vienna residents met with representatives from the consulting firms Duncan Associates and Ferrell Madden Associates to discuss the town's vision for Maple Avenue. Duncan was contracted by the town to study zoning options for the commercial corridor along Maple, in accordance with a 2005 recommendation by the Maple Avenue Vision Committee, and Duncan subcontracted Ferrell Madden, which specializes in form-based code.
Residents expressed concerns about parking, a lack of variety in businesses, walkability, affordable housing and general attractiveness. However, little consensus was reached in terms of how much change was desired. As a result, when Duncan Associates presented its findings to the Town Council at a work session in November, the presentation was more in the way of laying out various options than prescribing a specific plan.
Duncan representative RJ Eldridge said the town may want to consider modifying setback requirements and height limits in order to make the street more attractive and encourage development, respectively. He said mixed-use commercial and residential development could be encouraged by not limiting use above the first floor. Form-based code, which regulates a building's appearance, rather than its use, could be used to create a holistic appearance. He also recommended zoning overlays to differentiate between the central commercial district and its more outlying areas.
Eldridge made it clear that zoning code should be written very specifically and could tie rules like height limitation into other regulations such as those regarding architectural design.
Duncan has now submitted a final draft of its study to the town's Department of Planning and Zoning, and the mayor and Town Council will be discussing the results of the study, probably with the Planning Commission, at a coming work session.
<sh>Cable Competition Moves In
<bt>After decades of having only one option for cable television, most Vienna residents will have a choice between Cox and Verizon by this fall. By early last year, Verizon had repeatedly expressed a desire to introduce cable service to Vienna, so the Town Council proposed an agreement similar in terms to the town's franchise with Cox Communications.
Following the Virginia General Assembly's passage of new legislation regarding cable franchise agreements last spring, Verizon approached the town in June to make a counter-offer. The rewritten agreement absolved Verizon of many of the responsibilities it bears, for example, in its agreement with Fairfax County, and generally allowed the company privileges not enjoyed by cable providers through most franchises in the area.
According to the bill that had just been passed by the state, if a cable provider cannot reach an agreement with a locality within 45 days, it can fall back on a statewide franchise template and begin installing cables. The statewide agreement imposes fewer restrictions and responsibilities on the provider than do most franchise agreements in Northern Virginia.
The Town Council refused to use Verizon's proposal even as a starting point for discussion.
In August, Verizon representatives again appeared before the council, this time saying the company had been unaware that Fairfax County is Vienna's cable administrator, which would make it difficult for the two localities to work with Verizon under widely differing terms.
The contract that was ultimately reached is similar to Verizon's franchise with Fairfax County and Vienna's franchise with Cox. Verizon is now stringing fiber-optic cables through town and has promised to have over 90 percent of the town wired within a year after the contract was signed. However, a pocket of southeast Vienna, which is served by Verizon's Merrifield Central office, may not be wired for up to three years, as that office is not yet equipped to offer fiber-optic service.
Verizon also agreed to bury its lines along Maple Avenue, at no cost to Vienna, when the town undertakes to bury all utility lines in the commercial district in the next few years.
<sh>Face Lifts for Branch and Beulah
<bt>Beulah Road, from Maple Avenue to the northern town limit, will be rebuilt this year. The road's pavement will be removed and replaced, curbs and gutters will be installed on both sides, and a sidewalk will be built along the east side. Narrow, asphalt walkways currently run along each side of the road.
A few utility poles are already being added or moved, and some work on the gas lines is already being done, in preparation for the project, said acting Department of Public Works Director Holly Chu. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) had initially planned to move almost all of the utility poles several feet back from the street, in accordance with new regulations, but enough residents were concerned about saving their trees that town officials managed to get waivers granted by VDOT so that most utility poles would stay where they are.
To the south of Maple, Branch Road will also be rebuilt this year, including sidewalks, curbs and gutters. Both projects were initiated by the town, which is matching a small percentage of the money that VDOT spends on them.
Chu said she expects both projects to be put out to bid in the next month or so and to be completed by winter.
Throughout construction, Beulah will be closed to northbound traffic between Maple Avenue and Sideling Court, with detour signs directing traffic to take Old Courthouse Road north to its intersection with Beulah and Trap roads. As it is not a major through-street, Branch Road's construction will cause considerably less traffic disturbance than the Beulah Road project. The detour from Branch will be Glyndon Road.
<sh>Real Estate Trends
<bt>As in the rest of Northern Virginia, the real estate market in the Vienna and Oakton areas took a hit last year. According to data from Metropolitan Regional Systems Inc., the number of homes sold in Vienna's 22180 Zip code fell from 33 in November of 2005 to 21 in November of 2006. A home's average number of days on the market leapt from 23 to 83 days.
However, the sale price of homes in town continued to increase, with the average sold price climbing from $545,257 in November of 2005 to $649,315 last November, an increase of about 19 percent. The list prices for those homes jumped by almost 25 percent.
Andy Norton, who has worked as a local real estate agent for 22 years and just started the Vienna-based company D.C. Homes, said one reason the town was less affected by the market downturn than its neighbors was that homes there were more affordable. "One thing that caused the downturn was an increase in interest rates by the feds," said Norton. Higher interest rates, he said, make buyers less likely to invest the most they can in a home. He also noted that high gas prices stimulated home sales near Metro stations.
Nearby, in Oakton's 22124 Zip code, where homes are more expensive, the real estate market was hit much harder. The average sold price for homes fell from $872,394 in November 2005 to $690,936 last November, a drop of about 21 percent. Meanwhile, the average list price for those homes dropped by about 15 percent. The number of homes sold in the month of November dropped from 32 to 23, and the average number of days homes sat on the market jumped from 37 to 80 days.
However, Norton said, there is a possibility of an upturn this year. "If what we've seen over the past six weeks is any indicator, 2007 will be a very strong year," said Norton in late December. Although last November saw fewer sales than November of 2005, he said, home inventories have declined, which could stabilize the market.
An excess of supply causes prices to drop, as well as buyer confidence, he explained, noting that the housing inventory "bubble" peaked in June and has been declining since, and sharply in the last weeks of the year. "What you would expect, though, is in the next couple of weeks, you would expect that to start back up again," he said. People generally put off buying or selling homes during the holiday season.
Norton said it remains to be seen whether recent real estate activity is marking the beginning of a strong 2007 market or just people having put off buying or selling during the downturn and finally having to jump into the market. He added that there is concern about an impending economic slowdown, which would cause interest rates to be lowered, in turn making buyers more likely to invest heavily. "On average," he said, "I think home prices will actually increase in 2007."