(Updated 6/11) A plan to overhaul one of the Metro system’s least-used stations is headed to the Fairfax County Planning Commission next week, but surrounding the new project is a complex network of advocates, issues, and jurisdictional questions that’s built Katamari Damacy-style over the last two years of public engagement.
As the project to transform the area around the West Falls Church Metro station starts to move forward, advocates and opponents alike are already starting to look at the next stage of transportation questions down the road.
The proposed comprehensive plan amendment aims to turn the area near the West Falls Church Metro station into a mixed-use district with office, retail, and residential uses more typical of areas near Metro stations.
With the withdrawal of Virginia Tech taking the filling out of the development sandwich, the two pieces of the plan are the City of Falls Church parcel, with mixed-use developments around a central stretch of park and open space, and the area adjacent to the Metro station.
The first phase of the project is scheduled for a planning commission public hearing on Wednesday (June 16) before going to the Board of Supervisors on July 13, after which the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s development team will still need to get specific plans approved.
So far, most of the public discussion about the project has involved transportation.
Evan Goldman, executive vice president of acquisitions for site developer EYA, says an expanded roadway parallel to the crowded Haycock Road should help relieve some of the local traffic, along with a new exit off I-66 running directly to the West Falls Church Metro station.
“There’s no question that what is being built here is 100% better than what is there today,” Goldman said. “This will have dedicated bike lanes on almost all the streets.”
Goldman says the concerns raised so far have mainly focused on the single-family residential neighborhoods near the development, where there are insufficient sidewalks in some places.
“It’s specifically because of the location, surrounded by single-family neighborhoods in an area where there are existing traffic issues,” Goldman said. “The density is sized for the capacity of what the traffic can handle to make sure we’re trying to be respectful of neighbors in terms of height and density.”
Goldman says lower density requirements will also allow more of the buildings to be delivered together, so the project can be brought online all at once.
The reaction from surrounding neighbors to the project has been mixed.
Paul Rothstein, one of the representatives from nearby residential development The Villages on a task force to review the project, has argued that the increased density will pose a hazard to nearby residents, who will feel the ripple effect of traffic from the site on streets not built to handle it.
“Even though I view pedestrian infrastructure remediation as mostly Fairfax County’s responsibility and not [EYA’s], your development will increase traffic in the surrounding areas and increase the risk to pedestrians,” Rothstein wrote in a letter to the developer.
Rothstein has been pushing for EYA to endorse a McLean Citizens Association resolution on the project, which notes that the traffic issues at the site remain unresolved.
“To quote the father of the injured child, ‘I also hope that the developers, who emphasize building walkable communities, will support the MCA resolution and thus make sure that walkability in existing communities does not deteriorate as a result of new communities,'” Rothstein wrote. “Adoption of the MCA resolution still will permit substantial development at the same time as promoting the safety of your neighbors, including their children.”
Goldman says current plans for the development include dedicated crossings on Haycock and Leesburg Pike, but Rothstein’s concern is for neighborhood children walking to Haycock Elementary along more crowded streets.
Goldman says EYA’s obligations for traffic improvement are primarily at the development site and not the broader region around the station.
Cheryl Sim, another nearby resident, agreed that, by and large, EYA is not responsible for the entire area, but it still has some obligations.
“The County and VDOT have long ignored this area and its needs,” Sim said. “However, EYA fronts for WMATA in this exercise. And, WMATA, based upon its Joint Development Guidelines and Principles from May 2020 place the onus on the developer.”
Sim said a key point in those guidelines is a requirement that developers be responsible for working with local communities to increase pedestrian and bicycle connections to and within their projects:
Developers are responsible for working with local governmental authorities, local communities, and WMATA to maximize the opportunities, mix of uses, and densities that promote transit ridership, as well as increase pedestrian and bicycle connections to and within the Joint Development site. Developers must also do their own community outreach and will be required to create a proactive community engagement plan. WMATA will cooperate with the developer in seeking entitlement approvals, but the obligation and responsibility for obtaining public approvals remain with the developer.
The project will have bike lanes on nearly all of the new streets, connecting the new developments with dedicated lanes directly to the Metro station. Beyond that, much of the responsibility shifts to Fairfax County.
The project has support as well, including from the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
“Walkable, inclusive, transit-oriented communities are the most equitable way for our county and the region to grow,” CSG Northern Virginia advocacy manager Sonya Breehey said. “This is an important step in realizing that, since it’s right next to the West Falls Church Metro, it’s an opportunity to transform that into a transit-oriented development.”
Breehey says she’s excited for the transportation modifications with the new grid of streets, the bike connectivity, and other improvements, though she also recognizes the concerns from neighbors about the broader safety issues.
“I’m very concerned about pedestrian/bicycle safety,” Breehey said. “…It sounds like plans in the development are building enhanced connections, but we do want to make sure surrounding areas are not being impacted, that Route 7 and Haycock Street are safe and comfortable for people to walk along it and across it.”
Breehey’s other concern is that traffic slowing on Route 7 could be troubled by the Virginia Department of Transportation being resistant to anything that inhibits traffic flow on an arterial road.
“Part of this is we need VDOT to step up to the table,” Breehey said.
Breehey says she was happy to see residents be vocal advocates on this issue, and she hopes that helps shape policy changes at a county level, noting that follow-up plans and studies are in the works to try to improve pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure in the nearby communities.
“The West Falls Church Active Transportation Plan included in the plan amendment will assess where the greatest needs are and plan for improvements and identify funding, because these are going to be outside of the development area,” Breehey said. “Connectivity into neighborhoods is what the follow-on study will address. I want to see that plan prioritized by the county so it happens immediately, because we want to make sure it’s safe for people walking and biking.”
Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust says the follow-up study will be an opportunity to address the broader neighborhood transportation concerns.
“We’re going to follow up with a study that looks at pedestrian and bicycle access to the Metro area from the surrounding communities, not just the area included in the comprehensive plan,” Foust said. “We have done similar follow-on efforts in Tysons, Reston, and Herndon when we brought transit-oriented development plans around those Metro stations. We’re going to figure out how we can help people safely access the Metro as well as focus on access to the schools that could be impacted by traffic.”
Goldman says the development adjacent to the high school will be completed in late 2024 or 2025. Foust says that will give Fairfax County time to get the work done on the nearby neighborhoods.
“The new development takes years to get through the process, so it’s not like we won’t have an opportunity to develop a plan before the impacts are felt,” Foust said. “Given the traffic problems, I’m absolutely sympathetic to the concerns of anyone that it will get worse, but we’re going to focus on making sure it doesn’t get worse and hopefully making it better. Particularly, significantly more people can access and use the Metro, which is one of our highest priorities.”
Foust says the continued public push for better bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure in nearby residential neighborhoods has been helpful in keeping the discussion at the forefront in County discussions.
“The concerns are understood and we’re going to stay on-top of this and ensure the infrastructure that is needed keeps pace with the development, which we’re making a commitment that that happens,” Foust said. “I appreciate all the input we’ve received. It’s understandable and it’s been helpful.”