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Councilmembers Recognize Stern Code

Two members say Council should lighten up if it’s serious about redeveloping the city

With an ambitious Master Plan on its way for Fairfax Boulevard, the City Council is still chipping away at land-use details to the degree that some members fear will scare away developers.

"If we end up thumbing our nose up at every proposal … developers will end up saying ‘let’s just leave things the way they are,’" said Councilmember Scott Silverthorne.

Two work session items at Council’s Tuesday, May 8, meeting took upward of two hours. Both items were proposals for drive-through banking centers, both along Fairfax Boulevard.

The council’s concerns were all across the board, from the attractiveness of the buildings, to the amount of required landscaped medians in the parking lots. They seemed to agree that the more valid code concerns were setbacks, traffic conflicts and parking availability.

The proposed Chevy Chase Bank and an unknown retail shop that would both be built at the Boulevard Shopping Center, across from Paul IV High School on Fairfax Boulevard, has had parking flaws since the City Council first discussed it last September. The proposal calls for demolishing the freestanding furniture store building currently on the site, at the triangular intersection of Warwick Avenue and Fairfax Boulevard, and replacing it with a 3,650-square foot Chevy Chase Bank. Part of the proposal also includes adjoining 8,000-square feet of retail to the Party City store currently on the eastern portion of the shopping center.

Councilmembers have sifted through details relating to parking, traffic signals, drive-through lanes, relocation of curb cuts and pedestrian-friendliness. The applicant, Saul Holdings, LTD, came back Tuesday, Feb. 20, with some adjustments.

Saul Holdings originally requested that a restaurant occupy the 8,000-square foot addition, but the parking that would go along with a restaurant didn’t seem plausible, said Nick Colonna, senior city planner. Now that the restaurant has turned into retail, some members are concerned about what kind of retail and what it would bring to the rest of the center.

Councilmembers generally agreed that the bank portion of the project is almost satisfactory, but the retail addition portion is still concerning. Noting that the Super H Mart on the opposite side of the property is a successful specialty market, Mayor Robert Lederer said "without the assurance of some kind of retail … this would put a lot of red flags up for me."

Councilmember Joan Cross questioned whether the city has ever dictated the type of retail shop to a developer and whether it should. Lederer told her he’d provide plenty of examples before the next meeting.

According to the applicant’s parking study, the adjusted proposal would meet the parking requirements, and then some, during peak hours. Combined with the Super H Mart and the stores on the western portion of the center, 195 excess spaces would be available during peak hours. A restaurant would mean a shortfall of about 30 spaces, said Colonna.

Councilmember Jeffrey Greenfield wondered if some of the difficulty with meeting parking requirements for the restaurant was because of the City Council’s landscaping requirements.

"I want staff to know how many spaces lost from landscaping requirements," he said. "[Maybe] we’ve created a problem and then we’re giving the applicant a hard time for not meeting the requirements."

WHILE THE USE of the property and parking dominated the discussion for the proposed Chevy Chase Bank, appearance, traffic patterns and environmental issues concerned members during the discussion of the proposed Commerce Bank, at the intersection of Bevan Drive and Route 50.

Since a gas station is what’s currently on the site, at 11098 Fairfax Blvd., councilmembers wondered why the business was vacating the property. Lederer asked staff to find out if it was a lease-expiration or some other reason, since the surrounding community has sent him several e-mails in recent weeks about their love for their neighborhood gas station and auto repair shop.

The proposed bank, also a drive-through, is about 4,300 square feet.

Fred Taylor, the attorney representing Commerce Bank, said the banks are very community-oriented and make great neighbors. After listening to members discuss various designs and appearance issues, Taylor agreed to come back with as many answers as possible. The right turn restriction out of the bank’s parking lot into the adjacent neighborhood concerned Greenfield though. He also expressed concern about losing another city gas station.

"If we’re serious about redevelopment, I think we need to be a little flexible with people," he said.

IN OTHER COUNCIL NEWS, members discussed the road improvement project at the intersection of Pickett Road and Route 236. The Virginia Department of Transportation has already begun construction for the following:

* A right-turn lane at westbound Main Street to northbound Pickett Road

* Converting the existing right-turn lane on westbound Main Street into a through lane

* Improving the right-in and right-out entrance to the Turnpike Shopping Center on Main Street

* Removing the left turn from northbound Pickett Road to the Turnpike Shopping Center

* Extending the dual left turn lanes along southbound Pickett Road, approaching Main Street

* Allowing a U-turn from eastbound Main Street to westbound Main Street as an alternative access to the Turnpike Shopping Center (for the vehicles previously allowed to turn left from Pickett Road).

Combined Properties, the property managers for both the shopping centers at that intersection, have offered to dedicate portions of the properties at both centers in order to widen Pickett Road, as an alternative to eliminating the left turn lane. Combined Properties proposes paying for about one-third of the cost, which is about $1.1 million as long as any major underground utilities aren’t impacted.

But the city would have to acquire the parcels of land through a condemnation process, said Lederer. He also pointed out that it would cost the city market value for the land. That figure was not a part of city staff’s $1.1 million estimate for the project. Since the proposal doesn’t require the use of federal or state funds, the city could move along with the project without consulting VDOT, said Alexis Verzosa, the city’s transportation director.

Councilmembers shook their heads in disgust at the current project that would replace the eliminated turn lane with U-turns.

"To encourage people to U-turn to get in there; I mean, there’s no way," said Cross, with disbelief.

"It seems like a no-brainer that we ought to do it," said Councilmember Gary Rasmussen. "So why don’t we go ahead with getting the engineering cost estimates."

The council asked staff to begin working on some serious estimates and have them ready as soon as possible, since the VDOT workers are already on site and it could end up being too late if they wait much longer. The council will be at City Hall, Tuesday, May 15, for a special Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan presentation, so it could vote on a resolution through a special meeting then.