A couple of days after this work session, the Mayor and Council had an off-site with the Planning Commission, chairs of various boards and commissions and other community leaders. The purpose of the off-site was to find common ground around the principles of a vision for the City of Fairfax looks like in say, 5, 10 or even 20 years. It didn't take long to find this common vision, which is that the City finds a way to retain its sense of place, protect its neighborhoods, but encourage redevelopment of Fairfax Boulevard and our aging shopping centers. On top of this, we want the City to be more walkable, have more retail options and find a way to provide housing choices to people of all age groups - the young who are just starting out, those with families and our seniors. On a side note, this off-site was a starting point and we will be gathering more community input.
What both of these meetings have in common is that they are putting us on the path of retrofitting the City of Fairfax. Yes, this is economic development as we all think about it, but it's more than that - it's a different way of thinking. You see, the City has the basics down right - quality government services, low taxes and fees, great schools, wonderful parks and amenities and of course an authentic sense of community. What we lack are the newer buildings, services and shops that reflect who we are today and will lay the groundwork for future generations of people to call the City home.
The concept of retrofitting cities is not new. In fact, this term comes from Georgia Tech Professor Ellen Dunham-Jones when talking about how to "retrofit suburbia." When she describes retrofitting suburbia - as she does in this video - she is essentially talking about what we in the City of Fairfax are aiming to do - that is remake our City without changing who we are.
Like other communities around the country that sprang up after World War II, the City's community centers (or "nodes") like Kamp Washington, Fairfax Circle and Northfax are growing older and out-dated. Our shopping habits have changed with a greater variety of stores located across the region. And consumer preferences for how people want to live across the region have also changed. People young and old are discovering the benefits of more close-in shops and apartments/condos/townhouses where they can live within walking distance of great restaurants and a variety of retail and service-oriented businesses.
Yet, unlike many communities in the United States that try to "astroturf it" through faux town centers with cookie-cutter architecture that seemed to have pop-up overnight during the housing boom (and bust), we have an authentic community and sense of place that is unique to not just Northern Virginia, but across the country and even in the world. At the same time, we lack the high-quality developments and services that surround us (think again of Fairfax Circle Plaza) and that residents want. We also lack what I call "entry points" for housing in the City, namely more high-quality apartments and condos as well as housing for retirees who either want to remain in the City but don't want to maintain a single family home or want to come to the City and retire here. Now what we do have is solidly-built single family homes that sell briskly. A topic for another day is encouraging renovation of those homes to increase their value without a renovated house taking away from the character of the neighborhood.
The fact is we have two forces at play here that need to come together. On the one hand, we want these higher-quality developments and to retrofit our aging shopping centers and Fairfax Boulevard; on the other hand, we don't want to give up what makes us unique and special. On top of this, we want to integrate George Mason University into the community and get the economic lift without the City losing its identity and becoming "just a college town."
I personally think there is a way to do this, but each viewpoint will need to give a little. Here are five thought starters to get us on the same page:
- We need to be open to high-quality apartments and condos that will attract young professionals and new people into the City of Fairfax. This kind of housing helps create a market for retail, restaurants, movie theaters and other amenities we all want. Just look at Fairfax Corner, which is cited by many as what they want. Well, one must recognize that before there was a Coastal Flats there were apartments, condos and town homes. In other words, the immediate market was created, providing an economic incentive for new shops and restaurants. Of course, these places draw more than just those who live close-in, but the point here is that retail typically follows density.
- We need to be open to more density. I'm not talk about high-story buildings here (like Fairfax Circle apartments, Rosslyn, etc), but allowing 4- or 5-story buildings to be built since they provide just enough density that it allows builders to go up and bring together the housing, retail and restaurant options under one roof, if you will.
- Builders and developers should focus on the architecture. We aren't Santa Fe or Atlanta or anywhere else. We are the City of Fairfax and because we are smaller jurisdiction that is in the heart of Northern Virginia, we need a little more TLC when it comes to the materials and craftsmanship used to create these redevelopments. There are many examples in the City of what was done right (the redevelopment of Frank's Nursery and Fairfax Pointe) and if we take that to the next level and have our buildings look good, it will both attract more people to these places as well as improve the image of our City. Those who build in the City should aim to build "green," too, looking for ways to create great structures in a sustainable way, saving both energy and money.
- As a community we need to recognize that we are indeed at a crossroads. We have many retro-fittings of suburbia going on around us. Take a look at Merrifield for example where a new Target and other shops are being built. This is an example of remaking what was once an industrial area dotted with typical suburban strip shopping centers and transforming into a more urban, compact place that is attractive and gives people a reason to come there. The City can't stand idle. In my opinion we need to move forward to retrofit the City so that we both offer our residents and visitors a sense of place and unique experience while also offering all of us the opportunity to have better shops, restaurant and housing options.
- We need to remain true to who we are as a community yet not be afraid of change. Our population really hasn't changed much in the last 30 years, hovering around 20,000-22,000 people. With mixed-use redevelopment we could add people to our community. That's a good thing since we want more people to experience what's great about the City and be involved. The fact is, people are moving to Northern Virginia and we want to be a destination for them, either as residents or visitors.
Over the next several months, the Council and the community will have several plans put before it that can start the process of retrofitting the City of Fairfax. In addition to the Fairfax Circle Plaza redevelopment, there are other projects along Fairfax Boulevard and throughout the City that have the potential to transform the look of our City, but I believe ensure the character of who we are as a community remains. Personally, I am excited by this opportunity and what it has in store for our community. Stay tuned!