Tysons, VA

Hotel rooms have suddenly become difficult to come by in Fairfax County ahead of Inauguration Day on Wednesday.

That is a welcome problem for the lodging sector of the hospitality industry, which has been in a downward spiral since the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a slew of travel restrictions and stay-at-home health guidance.

But this inauguration will be unlike any other in recent political history. The general public’s ability to attend President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s Oath of Office ceremony has been sharply curtailed due to the pandemic, but hotels are hosting another large group of guests: the National Guard.

Up to 21,000 members of the National Guard have been authorized to come to D.C. and secure the city ahead of potential attacks, after Trump supporters stormed Capitol Hill on Jan. 6. Fairfax County hotels are reportedly housing some of the 15,000 guard members already in the D.C. metropolitan area.

“We are indeed hearing anecdotally from hoteliers that there has been an uptick in reservations compared with the past 11 months, but we are unable to ascertain whether those reservations are directly related to the inauguration and/or the National Guard or people who are visiting for leisure or business travel,” Visit Fairfax President and CEO Barry Biggar said in a statement.

The pandemic and ensuing shutdowns devastated the hospitality industry across the U.S. In Virginia, COVID-19 has resulted in the loss of about 100,000 jobs, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

In November, the AHLA found that 71% of its member hotels said “they won’t make it another six months without further federal assistance given current and projected travel demand.” 47% of respondents said they would be forced to close hotels.

Many hotels were forced to layoff more staff this winter, even as access to the second round of the Paycheck Protection Program has expanded to all lenders.

But the employees who remain taking the sudden surge of guests in stride, Biggar explains.

“What we do know is that our hotels have been working tirelessly, even with staff shortages and for long hours, to ensure that our guests are treated with the utmost hospitality,” he said.

Photo courtesy Hilton McLean Tysons Corner

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The Town of Vienna has launched an online survey asking renters and homeowners what they think of various potential changes to the town’s residential zoning laws.

The 10-minute survey will be open through Feb. 19. Questions can be submitted to [email protected].

It is the first survey to gauge support or opposition to specific changes that have been proposed as a part of the town’s effort to simplify and update the Town’s subdivision and zoning ordinances.

“We will share all the results on our website, and they will be shared with [a] consultant, as well as the planning commission and the town council,” Vienna Principal Planner Kelly O’Brien said in a virtual meeting on Wednesday (Jan. 13). “This is really getting the overall thoughts of the community.”

Town planners said they are starting with a focus on residential zoning, since a majority of Vienna is residential. More surveys, forums, and meetings are slated for this year to gauge approval for changes to residential and commercial codes.

The initiative is facilitated by Code Create Vienna, the town’s online engagement platform for the zoning code and subdivision ordinance update. The process began in the summer of 2020 and will end in the winter of 2021, when the consultant ZoneCo will present a new code for zoning and subdivision.

Survey questions cover topics such as adding front porches and accessory living units, increasing the space allotted for back patios, requiring open spaces for multifamily dwellings, and building age-restricted cottage housing.

“This is ongoing, iterative process,” O’Brien said. “You don’t have to wait for special meetings.”

ZoneCo recommended these and other potential changes to the Vienna Town Council during a work session on Dec. 3.

Residents can also share their thoughts by taking a more general survey or writing down suggestions for zoning changes, such as preserving outdoor dining, that they come up with while walking or biking around town. Town planners have been hosting regular webinars on specific topics as part of Code Create Vienna’s Lunch & Learn series.

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Updated at 11:45 a.m. — The fatality and crash numbers in this article from the DMV reflect statistics for Northern Virginia, not just Fairfax County as previously stated. The Fairfax County Police Department says that the county’s fatality and crash rates are much lower.

With 38 pedestrian fatalities, 2019 was the deadliest year in the last decade to walk in Northern Virginia, according to Virginia DMV data.

The number of deaths dropped to 29 in 2020, but the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and county transportation officials are still working on strategies to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety with a countywide initiative.

“Unfortunately our incidents of pedestrian fatalities and crashes continue to be at unacceptable levels,” FCDOT bicycle and pedestrian program manager Chris Wells said during a transportation committee meeting yesterday (Tuesday). “Due to a number of factors, those numbers are trending up — not just in Fairfax, but in Virginia and across the United States.”

Bicycling is safer, but crash rates are still high: 216 crashes in 2019, and 157 in 2020.

Wells added that certain portions of Fairfax County’s population are disproportionately affected by pedestrian crashes, a trend that has been documented nationwide.

The county hopes to reverse these statistics. Wells told supervisors that FCDOT and VDOT have recently improved walking and cycling conditions by programming head starts into signals for pedestrians, re-striping four-lane roads as two-lane roads, and installing rapid-flashing beacons for crosswalks without lights.

VDOT awarded FCDOT $1.2 million last year to install nine more flashing beacons, bringing the county’s total to 17, Wells said.

VDOT also has a pedestrian safety action plan for improving safety along particularly dangerous corridors. In Fairfax County, the highest-priority roads are Columbia Pike, Little River Turnpike, Richmond Highway, Lee Highway, Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway, Braddock Road, and Ox Road.

Officials said that work on roads in Fairfax County is a lengthy process compared to other jurisdictions, because VDOT owns the roads.

“They’ve really stepped up this year to help us to advance pedestrian safety in a way that we have not seen in years past,” FCDOT Director Tom Biesiadny said.

Looking ahead, supervisors suggested introducing better lighting and longer crossing times at mid-block crosswalks. They are also still interested in reducing speeds in the county.

FCDOT officials said a multiagency group, including transportation officials and attorneys, is working through the logistics of speed cameras. Meanwhile, VDOT is preparing to examine where speed limits can be lowered.

Fairfax County has also been experimenting with closing street lanes to provide more room for walking and cycling. A pilot project that closed one lane on a half-mile section of Tysons Boulevard to motor vehicles ran from May 29 to Nov. 23 of last year, and a partial lane closure on Government Center Parkway has been in place since Aug. 31.

Chart and map via Virginia DMV data dashboards

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Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand is asking for a $3.1 billion budget for the 2022 fiscal year that focuses “on the most pressing needs” of the school system.

He presented the nearly level-services budget — “a modest request” with an approximately $400,000 increase — to the county school board last Thursday (Jan. 7).

The proposed budget requests a $42.7 million increase in transfer funds from the county government to pay for new preschool special education classes, retirement rate increases, and rising health care costs, which would patch over a gap created by drops in county and state revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As all of you know, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted FCPS, our students, families, and staff in ways we couldn’t have imagined,” Brabrand said during the meeting. “I have designed a budget to meet the educational and social-emotional needs of our children so they can continue to learn and grow despite the challenges of the past year.”

The proposed budget includes money for distance learning, including cybersecurity protection and Zoom, which will replace Blackboard for web-conferencing, he said.

The budget does not contain compensation increases for most employees, though there is $3 million to finish a three-year initiative to increase the salaries of instructional assistants and public health training assistants.

In December, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam outlined a state budget for schools that features a one-time, 2% bonus for teachers and support staff, with the potential for the salary boost to become permanent. But Brabrand said Fairfax County is opting out because it cannot afford to participate.

The burden would be on Fairfax County to match state funds with $32 million in county-level funding, he said.

“We understand that [FCPS] kept everybody whole,” Fairfax Education Association President Kimberly Adams said. “But many staff see it as a slap in their face.”

In comparison, Prince William County offered compensation increases in its budget last year, and Loudoun County’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year includes money to cover compensations that were frozen last year, she said.

“If Loudoun and Prince William moved two steps ahead of Fairfax, we’re behind,” she said. “People are already irritated. This is a potential reason to leave.”

The lack of compensation particularly hurts Virginia teachers, who have the largest teacher wage penalty in the country at 32.7%, Fairfax County Federation of Teachers President Tina Williams said.

“We’re disappointed that the FCPS proposed budget does not include a pay increase for school employees, especially after a year that is the hardest in their career,” she said in a statement. “We urge FCPS to demonstrate it values the hard work and dedication of its employees by providing wage and cost of living adjustments to help keep employees whole.”

The Fairfax County School Board will hold a work session to discuss the proposed budget tomorrow (Tuesday). A public hearing has been scheduled for 6 p.m. on Jan. 26, though it could carry over to Jan. 27 if needed.

The school board will adopt its advertised budget on Feb. 18 and present it to the Board of Supervisors on April 13. A final approved budget is scheduled to be adopted on May 20.

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It took an unprecedented shift to distance learning for Shrevewood Elementary School to drop below capacity for the first time since 2012.

After nearly a decade of parent and community advocacy, however, a long-term solution for overcrowding at the Falls Church-based school is finally in sight.

The Fairfax County School Board voted this week to repurpose the Dunn Loring Administration Center as an elementary school using $36.8 million in school bond funds.

That money had previously been earmarked for a new school in the Fairfax/Oakton area to lessen overcrowding at Mosby Woods and Oakton elementary schools, which has since subsided.

Providence District School Board Representative Karl Frisch proposed the plan last year after meeting with parents in the communities affected by the crowding.

“We’ve been pushed to the next year for so long,” Shrevewood Elementary PTA President Kate Coho said. “If we could get the ball rolling, that would be great.”

In the past, parents focused on a new boundary process to offset a mini-baby boom in the neighborhoods around Shrevewood.

Coho remembers that a mother began drawing attention to the school’s overcrowding about four years ago. The school was put in line to get a boundary study the following year, but FCPS dropped that provision from its capital planning program until Frisch put it back in last January.

“Then COVID-19 happened, so we’ve obviously been kicked down the road again,” she said.

Coho and fellow parent Jeremy Hancock, whose daughter is in third grade at Shrevewood, both embrace the Dunn Loring plan.

“A school boundary change has always appeared like the most likely or easy thing, but it’s encouraging that we have a longer-term solution,” Hancock said.

Coho said administrators have found creative ways to mitigate the crowding, but the school experience still suffers.

Some kids eat and play early or late in the day to avoid maxing out the cafeteria and the playgrounds. Sixth graders learn in seven temporary classrooms, and some elective courses like art and music are located out there, too.

School-wide activities are “basically impossible,” Coho said.

The 12-acre campus has no space for an addition or more trailers, which are located in the middle of the playground and extend all the way to a hill on the back-end of the school, she said.

The school was last expanded in 1998, when the building was updated to meet current design standards.

“Shrevewood ES has had a slight capacity deficit of 102% beginning in [School Year] 2012-13 and a substantial capacity deficit of 116% beginning in SY 2017-18,” FCPS spokesperson Lucy Caldwell said in an email.

Since 2012, the following work has been done:

  • 2013-14: Added temporary classrooms
  • 2015-16: Divided two classrooms into four classrooms
  • 2016-17: Added temporary classrooms
  • 2019-20: Assigned newly identified primary students to the enhanced autism program at Freedom Hill Elementary School instead of Shrevewood
  • 2019-20: Added additional parking

Moving special education programs would effectively free up a few classrooms, but it is “a tricky issue,” Coho said. “It is a difficult situation to put special-needs children in.”

Meanwhile, Hancock, who serves as president of the Falls Hill Civic Association, is also working with the Virginia Department of Transportation to address safety concerns on Shreve Road, which compounds the overcrowding issue.

Because the road’s big intersections and adjacent neighborhoods are designed for driving, there are no sidewalks or protections for pedestrians and cyclists using the Washington & Old Dominion bike trail.

Hancock argues that the chronic lack of parking — a symptom of overcrowding — could be mitigated by safe walking routes.

“It’s such a long term process,” he said.

Photo by Michelle Goldchain

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COVID-19 vaccinations, the state budget, and the question of how to get students and teachers back in schools are among the many items on the agenda for Virginia lawmakers this year, as the General Assembly prepares to convene for a truncated 46-day session.

Del. Marcus Simon (D-53rd) and State Senate Majority Leader Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-35th) cited those issues among their top priorities for the upcoming legislative session during a virtual town hall hosted by the City of Falls Church on Wednesday (Jan. 6).

“We have to have a balanced budget. We have to prioritize K-12 education,” Simon said.

He added transportation infrastructure, criminal justice reform, voting accessibility, and the need to put Virginia on a path to “going carbon-free as soon as we can” to his laundry list of goals for the session, which starts on Wednesday (Jan. 13) and ends on Feb. 27.

Currently, Virginia is vaccinating healthcare providers and those in nursing care facilities, who comprise Phase 1A of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s priority groups.

He and Saslaw said they hope Virginia can start vaccinating those in Phase 1B — such as firefighters, teachers, agriculture workers, and those 75 and older — by February.

Saslaw emphasized the importance of funding for K-12 and college education and tackling school reopening plans.

“A lot of kids are being hurt by virtual learning,” he said. “It just doesn’t work well.”

He also noted that increased expenditures for COVID-19 relief and transportation infrastructure, combined with decreased revenue from meals, sales, and gas taxes, have contributed to a potential budget deficit of $300 million to $400 million.

“The budget is the overriding thing,” Saslaw said.

As chair of the House Committee of Privileges and Elections, Simon said that he is looking to make permanent several voting laws that the General Assembly implemented last year on a temporary basis.

With COVID-19 keeping people confined to their homes and turning potentially crowded polling places into a public health risk, state legislators voted to permit ballot drop boxes, prepaid postage for mail absentee ballots, and other allowances, but those measures were only in place for 2020.

The General Assembly will need to adopt new legislation this year to continue those policies for future elections.

“Virginia has a history, unfortunately, of voter suppression, and I’m working very hard to change that,” Simon said.

Simon and Saslaw also indicated support for a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would eliminate voting restrictions for people who have been convicted of a felony.

Finally, Simon assured listeners that the redistricting process will be open to the public. During last year’s Nov. 3 general election, Virginians approved a referendum that shifted responsibility for drawing congressional and state legislative district lines from the General Assembly to a commission of legislators and citizens.

“The good news about it all is the transparency piece,” Simon said. “Every conversation about this — if you can bear it — you can tune in and follow it.”

Photo via Virginia General Assembly/Flickr

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After a few months of delays, Island Fin Poké Co., a fast-casual beach shack serving up Hawaiian-style poké, is slated to open in Falls Church on Jan. 18 to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The poké (pronounced “poh-kay”) restaurant at 7501 Leesburg Pike in Idylwood Plaza will be owned and operated by Bonita Bell and her husband Howard. Bell said in a press release that she is excited to offer jobs and a health-conscious concept to the community during these turbulent times.

“We are delighted and grateful to open up this business at this time in our vibrant community,” Bell said. “The continuing restrictions due to the pandemic will present challenges, but we are now more excited than ever to start the new year promoting positivity and healthy lifestyles.”

The Idylwood Plaza location was set to open in the fall, but was delayed until this month. The owners did not return Tysons Reporter’s request for comment on the delay before publication.

The restaurant will be open from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. every day, according to the chain’s website.

The husband-wife duo have also committed to opening an Island Fin Poké location in Vienna, targeted to open in 2022.

Bell, an African American entrepreneur, said she wants to encourage others to serve their communities on MLK Day. To promote the mindset that the occasion is “a day on, not a day off,” her Falls Church restaurant will donate 20% of its opening day sales to the nonprofit Food for Others.

“The past year has hit many people hard,” she said. “With so many jobs lost from restaurant closings, we are happy to provide job opportunities and to partner with Food for Others to support those who are struggling in our community.”

Like the overall restaurant industry, the pandemic has posed challenges to Island Fin Poké, but the Florida-based fast-casual chain is poised to continue growing, co-founder Mark Setterington said in a statement.

The Falls Church location is Island Fin Poké’s first in Virginia, increasing the chain’s presence in the greater Washington, D.C., area after it opened an outpost in Bowie, Md., last year.

“The DMV area is somewhere we are really excited to grow in,” Setterington said.

He described Bonita  as “the perfect addition to our ohana, as she reflects our mission to bring guests high-quality poke in an immersive and welcoming environment. For us, ohana is a way of life, and we want every guest that walks through our doors to know they are a part of the family.”

Photo courtesy Island Fin Poké Co. 

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On Tuesday morning, the Fairfax County School Board approved a proposal to convert the Dunn Loring Administration Center into an elementary school.

All 10 board members who were present supported the measure. Two members were absent at the time of the vote.

The move is intended to relieve overcrowding at Shrevewood Elementary School in Falls Church and avoid the need to make multiple boundary adjustments.

“We want to limit the disruption to the community, and potentially facing several adjustments is not a path we want to go down,” Providence District Representative Karl Frisch told the board.

Fairfax County Public Schools staff support the plan but want to avoid setting a firm timeline to keep their focus on returning to school, he said. Once planning starts, a new school could be ready in five years.

“This is one of the first steps that needs to be done to deal with the development going on in that area,” Dranesville District Representative Elaine Tholen said.

Today, the Dunn Loring center houses some special education services and programs for parents, but it previously served as an elementary school from 1939 to 1978.

Converting it back will cost $36.8 million in school bond funds. The school board will be using funds that were earmarked for a new school in the Fairfax/Oakton area, which was intended to lessen overcrowding at Mosby Woods and Oakton elementary schools.

The student populations at those schools have since dropped below capacity, Frisch said. Meanwhile, Shrevewood is “bursting at the seams” and could reach 120% capacity by 2025.

The school was first identified as slightly overcrowded in 2012, and became substantially overcrowded in 2017, FCPS spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said. Since 2012, the school has taken steps to ease crowding, such as adding space, trailers and more parking, she said.

Repurposing the Dunn Loring center is a more viable long-term solution than redrawing boundaries, Shrevewood Elementary PTA president Kate Coho told Tysons Reporter.

“Dunn Loring provides the long-term solution to the problem that’s only going to get worse in this immediate area, as we see housing continuing to go up,” she said.

At-large school board member Abrar Omeish said Shrevewood’s over-capacity is not as stark as schools like Glen Forest Elementary School, which has “more kids in trailers than in the building” and a 75% poverty rate.

“When people say that we focus more on schools that have more than the ones that don’t, I can’t refute that,” she said.

Hunter Mill Representative Melanie Meren said no solution will serve everyone, but this repurposing option is available now.

“I thought this would be a more straightforward conversation,” she said.

The Fairfax County School Board currently does not have any official policies dictating a public process for reallocating bond funds to different projects than the ones they were intended to support when approved by voters.

Frisch held two community meetings in December on the Dunn Loring repurposing proposal, one for the Shrevewood community and one for the Mosby Woods/Oakton area. However, the school board’s guidebook does not require those meetings or even a forum discussion for proposals to change how bond funds are allocated.

As part of the approval, the school board also directed its governance committee, which is chaired by Frisch, to look at developing a mechanism for a public process to ensure more clarity and transparency for future projects such as this one.

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Although Dalia Palchik has spent nearly all her life in Providence District, her first term representing the district on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors still threw her some curveballs.

Though she had some prior experience with the county government as Providence’s representative on the Fairfax County School Board, Palchik tells Tysons Reporter that she still had to get acclimated to the many departments, initiatives, and organizations, all while in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic.

“My next goal is to have us get away from acronyms,” Palchik joked.

More seriously, the supervisor says the pandemic has uncovered problems in Fairfax County that she believes can be tackled if the county commits to building trust in the community and working with established and respected local groups and organizations.

She says this year has revealed the vulnerability of communities that have less access to housing, good schools, and walking trails. Those populations also bear the brunt of economic depressions and climate change.

While it is important that the county has hard data showing these inequities, it needs to work “so much faster and harder to help not make those gaps even larger,” Palchik said.

Palchik also saw significant gaps in Fairfax County’s ability to communicate with people who speak Spanish. Upon becoming supervisor, she learned that the county had no Spanish-speaking person overseeing all communications with Spanish speakers.

“I was shocked, honestly,” she said.

For a few months, Palchik filled that role until it was taken over by a Spanish-speaking staff member who joined the county communications team this fall, she says.

As supervisor, Palchik also noticed a disconnect between the county’s operations and the needs of hyper-local communities, noting that many residents are more likely to think of Rhode Island when they hear the word “Providence.”

“They know that they live in Oakton, Falls Church, Tysons, Merrifield or Dunn Loring,” she said. “I think the big challenge is continuing to do things that support our whole county, while honing in at the community development level.” Read More

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More people in Fairfax County are facing food insecurity this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as illustrated by increased requests to the county and local pantries for groceries.

Fairfax County received 5,980 requests for emergency food from Mar. 1 to Dec. 21 of this year, a 56% increase from the same timeframe in 2019, according to Shweta Adyanthaya, a public information officer for the county’s Health and Human Services Department.

“The height of the requests came in the early months of the response — April to September — and then leveled off to average levels of requests since then,” Adyanthaya said. “Those households in need of food resources are referred to nonprofit and faith-based community partners, as well as other county resources.”

She encourages residents in need to use the county’s map application to locate food distribution groups near them.

One nonprofit in the Tysons area is Food for Others, which operates out of a warehouse in Merrifield.

Food for Others spokesperson Bridge Snydstrup told Tysons Reporter that the nonprofit is distributing food to an average of 4,000 families weekly, double the number of families it served pre-pandemic.

“The majority of people we are serving right now are unemployed due to COVID-19,” Snydstrup said. “Many of our clients work in the service industry and have either lost their jobs or had their hours significantly reduced due to the pandemic.”

She said that donations are also ticking up, helping the nonprofit meet the additional need.

“The Northern Virginia community has been extremely generous in helping FFO respond to the COVID-19 crisis,” Snydstrup said. “So many people have reached out asking what they can do to help and have either donated food or made monetary donations.”

However, volunteer rates are down overall, even though many in the community are interested in helping out.

“We have to limit the number of people in our warehouse to allow for social distancing and to ensure that our staff, volunteers, and clients are safe,” Snydstrup said. “We do have limited volunteer slots in our warehouse on weekdays, [and] those interested can sign up on our website.”

The best thing to do for those who want to help but are unable to volunteer is to host a food drive and drop off the donations.

Students in the area are also stepping up, Dranesville District School Board representative Elaine Tholen said in her newsletter on Monday (Dec. 21).

Last week, Cooper Middle School and Langley High School held a joint food drive for SHARE of McLean that brought in more than 6,500 non-perishable items. More than 40 students volunteered.

“We are thrilled to share it was an overwhelming success,” Tholen said. “We continue to be amazed by the generosity displayed by our school community and pyramid at large.”

The increase in demand for food assistance and drop in available volunteers are trends playing out nationally too.

Feeding America’s network of food banks have distributed nearly 57% more food in the third quarter of this year compared with 2019, according to an Associated Press analysis.

Meanwhile, NPR reported that food banks are seeing fewer volunteers, in part because the usual volunteers include older people, who are staying home to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

Food donation photo via Dranesville School Board Representative Elaine Tholen.

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