Old Town Hall. Fairfax, Virginia. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Fairfax is a small city, with close to 24,000 residents, located in the heart of Northern Virginia. Built as a historical town center, anchored by the former site of the Fairfax County Courthouse, the city served as a regional hub of economic and civic activity throughout the 19th century. A trolley line built in 1904 connected Fairfax, then an active urban community, to Washington, DC. But rapid home growth and the suburban expansion of the 1950s and 60s have meant that Fairfax’s 6.3 square miles have largely been built out since the mid 20th century. Today, the city, with an aging population as well as aging infrastructure and housing stock, is on the cusp of some major, needed changes.
As is the case in many places around the county, the City of Fairfax has recognized both the need and the potential to grow the city and grow the local economy to remain competitive, and is committed to doing so in a way that doesn’t overwhelmingly impact taxes or infrastructure, worsen traffic congestion, or change the traditional vision that many residents have for the community.
With a higher population of residents over the age of 65 than other jurisdictions in Northern Virginia and also a growing number of residents in their 20s—due to the city’s proximity to George Mason University—there is more demand for a pedestrian-friendly, walkable community. “We need to grow smartly,” says Mayor R. Scott Silverthorne, a member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council. “From my perspective, that means development that caters to all generations.”
The city has invested heavily in public improvements: renovating city hall, constructing a new library and a new community center, upgrading historic properties, and creating 44 new acres of parks and open space. One new park, in the middle of the downtown historic district, will hopefully serve as a focal point and gathering place to catalyze revitalization of the city.
“Fairfax is changing and change is hard for a lot of people,” says Mayor Silverthorne. “My job as Mayor is to reassure people that this change is a good thing for long-term economic vitality.”
On the tails of the immense upgrade in public facilities, Silverthorne is working to increase private investment in a way that balances both residential and commercial development. And in the past year or two, the city has already seen a strong interest from the private sector in redeveloping Fairfax.
Recently, Main Street Bank relocated their corporate office to the City of Fairfax. Additional business relocation and development opportunities have led the city to consider the revitalization of Fairfax Boulevard, the city’s main commercial corridor, capitalizing on growth potential in the city.
“If you need revenue, you either raise taxes or grow your local economy,” says Silverthorne. “And I’d much rather grow the economy.”
The City Council has approved the redevelopment of Fairfax Circle Plaza from a strip retail center into a mixed-use development that will include 400 new residences and 88,000 square feet of retail. The site is a gateway into the city and many hope that it will serve to attract a new demographic to Fairfax and once again turn the city into a regional economic center.
“Growth is going on all around us. We’re competing with other communities in Northern Virginia, so we need our own unique take on creating a city center: an area where residents can park their cars once and then get out and walk to great restaurants and shops and other amenities,” says Silverthorne. “This type of growth is essential to capitalize on the population growth of the region as a whole.”