“People on the sidewalks, using the businesses and restaurants, leads to a thriving economy.” —Craig Havenner, Economic Development Authority
When City residents are passionate about something, they let their elected officials know. And that’s exactly what some three dozen people did during the Dec. 11 public hearing on Capstone’s proposal to provide housing for GMU students near Fairfax’s downtown.
“We support this application,” said Douglas Stewart of Fairfax City Citizens for Smarter Growth. “Old Town needs more residents living nearby, and Mason is a largely untapped resource for the City. This project creates an attractive landscape and a more-walkable community.”
Tom Ross said he supports “a vibrant Old Town to go to, not drive through, a strengthened partnership with GMU and welcoming new residents into our community.” He also said the project would bring in more revenue to the City.
Betsy Bicknell said she can see the site from her window at home and, as a neighbor, favors this project. “It’s a great location for student housing,” she said. “It would provide the customers and employees the Old Town businesses need to succeed. And business success leads to more tax revenue and a closer community.”
Also in support was Michael Fabio. However, he said a 10-foot sidewalk is needed around the Democracy Lane curve and on the private street. And he urged Capstone to “construct a park, instead of cutting down trees.” He also said the project would encourage students to bike or use mass transit, instead of driving to school. And, added Fabio, “If Capstone sells this project, it’ll mean it’s a success – and the new owner will want that to continue.”
But Phylis Salak said the fire and police costs for the students will decrease the City’s financial benefits. She also preferred single-family housing and wondered how many students will register their cars, volunteer or vote.
However, the Economic Development Authority’s (EDA) Craig Havenner said he and his colleagues were in unanimous support. “People on the sidewalks, using the businesses and restaurants, leads to a thriving economy,” he said. “And these new residents will introduce a younger demographic and increase the downtown customer base.”
But Sandra Chase, who lives across from the site, feared the lack of visitor parking would lead to illegal parking elsewhere and said the additional traffic might overwhelm the roads. “It’s not affordable, with $900-$1,200/month leases,” she said. Chase also worried about increased demands on the water and sewer capacity, fire and police departments.
GMU senior Taryn McDonald said she moved off campus as a sophomore, paid taxes and voted. “I became part of the 76 percent of students who live off campus – and they’re all commuters,” she said. “We’re already here, and the university continues to grow. But we’re losing housing and need more, and what’s being proposed will be beneficial to the students and to the relationship between Mason and the community.”
But Steve Blickstein said the students will use their cars and make the morning-rush delays on Layton Hall Drive longer than the street, itself. “Several times a year, there’ll be gridlock on Layton Hall and University drives when students move in and out or attend major events at GMU at the same time,” he said. Also doubting the financial benefit to the city, Blickstein said students would “eat lunch on campus and use Amazon to purchase things.”
However, EDA Vice Chairman Michael O’Brien said, “This brings badly needed young people to the City, and it [says] we want to help our small-business community grow. These students are going to bring new development to that area.”
STUDENT Joe Simms lives on campus, worked at City businesses and is interning in the Economic Development Office. “With housing being torn down at Mason, there aren’t many opportunities to live off campus,” he said. “They’re too expensive and you need lots of roommates. This would give students their own bedrooms and more than enough space.”
“I spend $150 at Giant, every two weeks,” continued Simms. “I buy gas on Main Street and eat in the downtown restaurants and at Fair City Mall. And I pay $630 to park my car on campus, so saying students wouldn’t walk or use the bus is ridiculous.”
David Obelon also supported the project. “This reminds me of Clarendon – a vibrant and interesting place to live,” he said. “But you need a critical mass of people to get there.” Similarly, Central Fairfax Chamber of Commerce Chairman Doug Church said his board unanimously approves it because it’ll help the downtown businesses.
Heather and Jeff Waye live across the street and were concerned about traffic and density. They also wanted noise and light-pollution issues studied before City Council made its decision. But John C. Wood encouraged approval.
“It’s a gift from heaven for Old Town Fairfax,” he said. “Otherwise, the commercial traffic we have will be diverted elsewhere, such as Fairfax Corner and the Mosaic District. And I hope it’ll stimulate redevelopment of the Safeway shopping center and the vacant businesses on Old Lee Highway. Old Town Fairfax cannot survive on just old people, alone.”
Bob Reinsel Sr. said housing and density should be increased near the center of town. He said the project will also keep residential property taxes under control.
But Jack Gould said a similar project, One University, is being built closer to GMU and will be “a worthy competitor to Capstone. Traffic in and out of campus is bad; I don’t think approving this project will make much difference to the relationship between the City and GMU.” And John Avila said more Cue buses would be needed and GMU should build its own dormitories on campus.
Decrying the worsening traffic here, Kevin Moran worried about the cumulative impacts of all the new development projects. “People don’t come to Old Town because it’s so hard to get there,” he said. But Chris Todd said it’s time for the Historic District to “grow up” and become more exciting.
Elizabeth Yapanis wanted a tree expert to examine the trees on site before they’re cut down. She also noted students will only be here nine months of the year. But Fairfax Downtown Coalition Chairman Eric Snyder called it a “transformational project” and welcomed the “sense of community it’ll bring.”
Deborah Dillard, of the Old Town Fairfax Business Association presented a document signed by 50 commercial business and property owners saying this project will be “a shot in the arm” to downtown. “It’s money coming in to us and helps us pay our employees,” she explained. “College students are in the acquisition phase of life, and these folks are our future – the best and the brightest.”
AFTER THE PUBLIC COMMENTS, Councilman Michael DeMarco made a motion for approval, seconded by Councilman Jon Stehle. “A 2017-18 study said GMU needs more than 2,000 new beds,” said DeMarco. “Twenty thousand students live off campus. Yes, the applicant and application have shortcomings, but also strengths. The net benefit to the City will be significant.”
Stehle added that GMU students are “already here in Fairfax City and are engaged [in it].” And Councilwoman Jennifer Passey said Capstone is willing to address the traffic problem.
“We have an opportunity to welcome young people to our City,” she said. “We can embrace them in this project or see them move here haphazardly. Either way, they are coming, and GMU is an asset. We’ve said we want to be a community for all, and I’ll be voting yes.”
But the density, lack of adequate parking and transportation bothered Councilwoman Janice Miller. She said there’s no guarantee students will take the bus or bicycle to class and “the developer won’t provide a shuttle.”
Councilman Sang Yi said there are “unresolved issues,” including about Cue buses and costs, and he didn’t like so many students moving to one spot. He also said 44 people emailed him, urging him to vote no.
“This proposal isn’t perfect and does have challenges,” said Mayor David Meyer. “But the existing structures [on site now] will continue to deteriorate, and development could happen by right. We as a city are at a crossroads, and I urge my colleagues to support this motion.” And they did, voting for it, 4-2, with Miller and Yi voting no.