Since the workshop: Fairfax, VA identifies new development potential along Fairfax Boulevard

Dover Kohl VisualizationA visualization of the Northfax node along Fairfax Boulevard illustrating a potential future condition. Photo courtesy of Dover Kohl & Partners.

In June, 2013 Smart Growth America visited the city of Fairfax, VA to help city leaders there figure out new strategies for development. How is Fairfax using that workshop to inform its work today?

Since 2007, the City has been working to revitalize Fairfax Boulevard, the main commercial corridor running through the city. The boulevard is currently home to strip mall-type retail and other low-density commercial businesses but recent developer interest in projects along Fairfax Boulevard made the City realize that low-density development on the corridor would not support the community over the long term. So the Department of Community Development and Planning applied for one of Smart Growth America’s free technical assistance workshops, viewing it as an opportunity to ground public discussions about development in sound fiscal policy.

At the workshop on June 7, 2013, Smart Growth America’s experts met with City officials, including Mayor R. Scott Silverthorne, councilmembers, economic development authority members and planning commissioners, among others. Discussion centered on how best to revitalize Fairfax Boulevard given the community’s concerns and changing market conditions. The workshop resulted in a few key recommendations from our experts, which the City has already begun to work on.

Prior to the workshop, the City had identified three primary areas for potential development along Fairfax Boulevard: Fairfax Circle, Northfax, and Kamp Washington. Smart Growth America initially recommended to focus redevelopment efforts on one or two of these nodes at first. Following the workshop, Fairfax officials conducted a market analysis to examine the demand for additional development, including retail, office, and lodging, along the boulevard over the next decade. The results of the analysis, conducted by Streetsense, coincided with Smart Growth America’s recommendations. The market analysis identified Northfax as the area with the greatest development potential and suggested a creation-of-place strategy there.

In September, Fairfax officials approved the final design for the Northfax transportation improvements project. Brooke Hardin, Director of the City’s Community Development and Planning Department, described this project as a catalyst for further development in the area. Not only will the project address long-standing drainage problems caused by its location in a floodplain, but also deficient pedestrian facilities, such as incomplete sidewalks. The City is now awaiting the Virginia Department of Transportation’s decision regarding right-of-way acquisition.

The workshop recommendations also suggested a list of new criteria to evaluate future development projects along the boulevard. “Something that came out in the workshop was a renewed focus on the core values that the City has espoused in our Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan and the Comprehensive Plan,” Hardin notes. He says the City has integrated these criteria, things like street network connectivity, walkable blocks, and public spaces, into initial discussions with developers about their proposed projects.

Additionally, Fairfax officials started a comprehensive rewrite of the city’s Zoning Ordinance, which has not been substantially altered since the mid-1980s. Noting that the current ordinance doesn’t support the Comprehensive Plan’s vision for Fairfax, Hardin hopes the rewrite will “incentivize the type of development that we’ve envisioned in the Plan…and offer a much clearer path to redevelopment.” While still in the early stages, the rewrite is expected to make the ordinance more user-friendly, improve land use regulations and ultimately make the City’s expectations clearer to the development community. Fairfax’s Comprehensive Plan was also amended last November to better facilitate implementation of affordable housing.

Taken as a whole, these actions position the City of Fairfax for successful redevelopment along Fairfax Boulevard. After the workshop, Mayor Silverthorne said he learned the importance of being proactive in working to achieve the City’s vision and stressed that now is the time to act, especially because the City competes with other jurisdictions for investment. Silverthorne summed up the essence of the workshop, noting, “If you build smartly, you will also save the community and the taxpayers a lot of money.”

Smart Growth America’s technical assistance program, made possible through a five-year Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Sustainable Communities, seeks to develop local planning solutions that help communities grow in ways that benefit families and businesses, while protecting the environment and preserving a sense of place. Three other nonprofit organizations—Forterra, Global Green USA and Project for Public Spaces—also received competitively awarded grants under this program to help communities get the kinds of development they want.

Technical assistance