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Brighten the Boulevard

Design open house asks citizens what they want Fairfax Boulevard to be.

A short drive down Fairfax Boulevard today is not a particularly aesthetic experience. Strip malls line the austere roads, which are choked with cars. The road has little green space or architectural creativity to speak of. However, the future may be changing for the Boulevard, as town planners and the Fairfax City Council have asked Fairfax residents how they envision the road.

Dover, Kohl and Partners met with members of the Fairfax community Saturday, March 24 at a design open house in Fairfax High School in order to get community input on the revitalization and design plans for Fairfax Boulevard. The revitalization plans, to be presented to City Council on Thursday, March 29, are meant to turn Fairfax Boulevard from the traffic- and strip-mall-congested street it is now to a graceful and beautiful thoroughfare and shopping destination.

“This is an interesting time in the history of our country,” said Victor Dover of Dover, Kohl and Partners in his introduction. “There's these conversations going on about how we want our communities to grow up, what we want the character to be.”

The road is almost 80 years old which, he said, “is a blink of time in architectural time."

Dover asked the community members, split up into groups of 10 or less, to come up with what they envision Fairfax Boulevard to look like in the next 50 years. “This is the most important corridor in this part of the region,” he said.

The groups laid out their maps of Fairfax Boulevard, which runs from Kamp Washington in the west, through Fairfax to Fairfax Circle, and began drawing their ideas. The ideas quickly moved from the vague into the specific.

“Virtually none of it is green space now,” said David Berenbaum of Fairfax.

“And it’d be nice to have some just to break it up,” said another group member.

The groups drew new parks and developments. They drew roads trying to fix the traffic problems at Fairfax Circle or the intersection of Route 123 and Fairfax Boulevard. In many cases, buildings and shops were pushed closer to the road and parking was hidden behind. Larger sidewalks were drawn and groups considered how to make pedestrian and bike access easier along the road.

“The plans get better when we bring in the community,” said Dover on why the designers decided to host the open house. “Ideas grow richer as a result.”

Fairfax Mayor Rob Lederer was also there watching the proceedings. He was impressed to see the community “rolling up their sleeves and planning the future of Fairfax," he said. "I think it’s very exciting."

The city is behind Fairfax Boulevard revitalization and wants to make sure the citizens are involved in the city’s plans. “We want to make sure we have as much community buy-in and support as we can to get this going,” said City Councilmember Scott Silverthorne.

The ideas were varied, but many groups had the same concerns. Many groups had drawn tree-lined roads and had places set aside for public art and monuments. People suggested an underpass to relieve traffic at Fairfax Circle, or a bypass or Beltway-like series of roads around it.

“I think people really want places that are more pedestrian-friendly,” Silverthorne said. Many plans included wider sidewalks and more consolidated parking to facilitate “two to three hour destinations,” as one group said. “Park once” areas where people will stop to spend large chunks of their day at many of the areas' businesses.

The next step in the revitalization process will prove if any of these ideas will come to pass. “The real issue is, will it pay for itself?” asked Silverthorne. “I think the city will do its share, but we have to make sure the economic development does its part.”

Lederer also sees the potential problems. “I think the number one challenge is balancing the wishes of the business community and the wishes of the residents,” he said. “If you can get to that common vision … then the political process can move aside and let it happen.”

But this problem is not unique to Fairfax. “Almost every town in America has some strip arterial corridor that is not aging gracefully,” Dover said.