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Strengthening the Fairfax City – Mason connection

by on 11/03/2014

On November 6-8, Fairfax City, George Mason, and the Northern Virginia Regional Commission are partnering to hold a charrette to explore various short and longer-term opportunities to strengthen the connection between Mason and the downtown Fairfax area. What are your ideas ? Share them in the comments here and join the conversation on Nov. 6 – 8!

While George Mason is Virginia’s largest research university, nobody would mistake the City of Fairfax for a college town. But Fairfax and George Mason are working together to try and improve the downtown area, a measure that will benefit them both.

Downtown Fairfax is a mere 15-minute walk from George Mason’s main campus, and the area has a lot to offer students. And for Fairfax, George Mason’s growth could better benefit local businesses and spur redevelopment.

Over the past three years, both Fairfax City and George Mason have gotten new leadership, and they’ve begun to move from an uneasy coexistence to an active collaboration. These days, both parties are working to make Fairfax’s downtown work for George Mason’s needs and interests, and vice versa.

One obvious place for these two entities to work together is transit. With nearly 34,000 students, most of whom attend classes at the Fairfax campus, along with thousands of faculty and administrators, the university is under constant pressure to move people efficiently and manage parking. Already, George Mason invests heavily in transit options like the Mason to Metro shuttle and Fairfax’s CUE bus, which allows students to ride for free.

Fairfax City and George Mason could also really benefit from working together on housing. While new businesses and public spaces have made downtown much more interesting than it was a decade ago, foot traffic remains light. Aside from the shopping and dining plaza on North Street, which is next to a parking garage, the city is struggling to find a way to bring more people downtown. On Fairfax’s end, new housing could mean more people downtown after business hours, and for George Mason, a thriving, walkable downtown could help with marketing and recruiting.

Finally, Fairfax and George Mason ought to collaborate on ways to improve University Drive and George Mason Boulevard, the roads that connect campus with downtown. In the 1990s, Fairfax built George Mason Boulevard to handle through traffic, and in the mid-2000s it closed University Drive to all but local traffic. Before it closed, University Drive flowed from single family homes to apartments to office buildings and then shops leading into downtown, giving it a feel that made the 15-minute walk inviting. George Mason Boulevard has no such charm.

The city and Mason could look at ways to make a trip from the campus more pleasant, safe and convenient. Options include downtown shuttles, improved lighting, and pedestrian-activated push-buttons in the downtown area.

Part of the reason for the disconnect between Fairfax City and George Mason is that the university has developed new housing and amenities that make the campus livelier but also somewhat insular. Still, a more inviting corridor would very likely encourage students to venture out, and without one, the university could very well focus its energies inward and continue urban redevelopment of the campus.

Cross-posted from Greater Greater Washington

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