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Mayoral candidates discuss smart growth

by on 01/09/2017

The City of Fairfax will hold a special election for Mayor on February 7. The candidates are Michael DeMarco, David Meyer and Ellie Schmidt. All currently serve on the City Council. Fairfax City Citizens for Smarter Growth asked each of the candidates to respond to a series of questions on transportation, housing, redevelopment of the city’s commercial areas and other aspects of smart growth. Their full responses to our questions are below.

Read the responses to get a better idea of where the candidates stand on smart growth. And please vote on Tuesday February 7! You can also vote absentee if you meet the requirements. For more information, visit

1) As Mayor you will be required to provide leadership to a relatively small City in the heart of a rapidly developing Fairfax County.
● What is your vision for the City over the next 20 years?
● What are the five most important things that need to be accomplished by the City in the next 10 years?
● What are the three most important things you would aim to accomplish during the next two years?

In 20 years I imagine a city that has a very active downtown, successfully expanded to the north and south with mixed use developments including residential, retail and entertainment venues. We have structured parking to allow people to take advantage of multiple venues in one visit. We have an expanded transit and path system to allow people to easily travel downtown from their neighborhoods. I also envision a well-established business corridor on Route 50. Mixed use developments are completed at Fairfax Circle, Northfax and Kamp Washington. And the connectors between those activity centers are now rid of strip malls and old motels. The Orange line has been expanded and there is a metro stop at Route 123 and 66. Because of our successful ability in attracting investment to complete this vision, our commercial tax base is significantly strengthened and our development partners have helped us in providing a mix of housing choices to include both affordable and senior housing.

The five most important things that need to be accomplished over the next 10 years are: 1) the fulfillment of the vision as laid out in the Fairfax Boulevard master plan, 2) the fulfillment of the vision as laid out in the downtown charrette, 3) completion of our pedestrian and bicycle trails throughout the city as outlined in the transportation plan, 4) an improved mix of housing types to include apartments, condos, townhomes, single family homes with a good percentage of affordable and senior options and finally 5) an improved mix of office space with the highest percentage being in Class A to attract new businesses into the city.

Over the next 2 years we must see significant progress in the three activity centers along Route 50. This is critical to our long term success and will require strong leadership from the mayor. The city must secure a developer to build affordable and/or senior housing in the city. And finally we must begin the next phase of revitalization in our downtown to attract retail, office, entertainment and residential while also promoting walkability.

My vision for our City for the next 20 years is to have our City as a 21st century community that preserves the best of our traditions while ensuring Fairfax remains a superior city, both regionally and globally. I envision our City where a forward-focused sense of place is created and sustained, where people are connected to the world, and a place where residents can work, learn, and live together in a safe, healthy and productive environment. Over the next 20 years, our region’s population is expected to grow substantially. While our City is “fully developed,” the City can expect an increase in our population primarily because of the turnover in existing neighborhoods, as well as a modest increase in the number of housing units. As Mayor, I will lead our citizens and Council to ensure that we invest in maintaining our first-rate infrastructure to ensure we meet the needs of citizens, now and in the future, and so we can compete as a community both regionally and globally.

Over the next decade, our City must first complete its 2030 Comprehensive Plan and then consistently execute this plan to ensure that we maximize private capital investment to create the most optimal outcomes for the City as a whole. Secondly, we must focus on redeveloping the 3 nodes along Fairfax Blvd consistent with the Fairfax Blvd Master Plan. Third, we must complete our Multimodal Transportation Plan and ensure this plan becomes a seamless part of our 2030 Comprehensive Plan. Specific components of this plan must be implemented based on the principles of the Comp Plan, including Complete Streets, resulting in greater investment in and expansion of our trails system, bicycling designs, and walkable neighborhoods. Fourth, we will need to make significant investments in our school facilities, recognizing that our renovated buildings will be in the age range of 20-30 years old. We cannot afford to delay these upgrades, as delays will only result in even greater costs. Lastly, we need to increase the diversity of housing options for our population. The vast majority of our City’s housing was built between 1955-1975, and the needs and expectations for housing in this century are rapidly changing from 50-60 years ago. Upgrading our existing housing, through programs such as the Renaissance Housing Corporation, will help ensure that our City remains an attractive place for people to live. Additionally, the variation in housing needs by our population has increased significantly over the last three decades, and we need intentional investment in senior housing, affordable housing, assisted-living and accessible housing.

In the next two years, as Mayor, I will do all I can to help jump start the already-approved construction of Scout at the Circle and the Novus project at Kamp Washington. I will lead the Council in completing our 2030 Comp Plan and our first Multimodal Transportation Plan. I will ask the Council to initiate a national search for a top-flight firm to help design an overall plan for the redevelopment of Northfax. Additionally, as noted in Response 6 below, I will lead our citizens and Council to focus on the future housing needs of our City and develop specific plans and timetables for implementing these new initiatives.

The City of Fairfax is currently an exceptional place to live, work and raise a family. Over the next 20 years, I envision a vibrant City continuing to enjoy the unique small town feel and special sense of community. An oasis of sorts in the middle of Fairfax County/Northern Virginia, our City will boast attractive, well kept residential neighborhoods, with strong, competitive, commercial segments including the commercial areas in the Historic Downtown, the activity centers and along the Fairfax Boulevard corridor. We will have a strengthened relationship with neighboring George Mason University. We will have a strong infrastructure and will have implemented a multimodal transportation plan providing for safe efficient transportation options for our residents. We have all of the components of a successful city – unique sense of community, cultural and historic resources, neighboring university and community college and a transportation network. We need to enhance our formula to extend our specialness and build on our great foundation. Fairfax City will continue to succeed with the team work of our residents, businesses and the government.

The five most important things that need to be accomplished in the next 10 years include, in no particular order, the following:
1. Economic Development – A focus on business retention and recruitment is crucial while filling vacant commercial spaces and promoting a “business friendly” environment. A strong commercial base will reduce the tax burden on our residents.
2. Development/Redevelopment – Insure that the size and scale of new development is appropriate for its surroundings and does not negatively affect the quality of life of our current residents and businesses.
3. Traffic Congestion – We need to evaluate the options to mitigate current traffic concerns while analyzing the impact of approved and future redevelopment projects.
4. Infrastructure – It is essential to make it a priority to assess and repair our current infrastructure – roads, sidewalks, storm sewer system, etc. Sound infrastructure is vital to our prosperity and the cost to “catch up” once behind is great.
5. Rejuvenation and revitalization of our aging commercial spaces and residential neighborhoods. The appearance of our City directly correlates to our success. Clean, well landscaped properties, and fresh facades attract new residents and businesses to our city.

[In response to, “What are the three most important things you would aim to accomplish during the next two years?”]
1. Upgrade and fill our vacant commercial spaces. It provides needed revenue, aids in our economic development efforts and prevents the appearance of a blighted, economically depressed city.
2. Complete the Comprehensive Plan update. continuing the community engagement process is critical to developing the updated plan.
3. Continue work on rejuvenation and revitalization of commercial and residential areas through the support of programs such as the Renaissance Housing Program, Facade Improvement Program, infrastructure upgrades and landscaping projects in the Historic Downtown are examples.

2) Property tax revenues comprise over 47% of General Fund revenues (FY2017 Budget, General Fund Revenue Overview, C-8). The cost of providing quality education currently comprises 40% of our General Fund expenditures (FY2017 Budget, Budget Summary, B-10). An increased commercial tax base is necessary to relieve the burden on residential property taxes to maintain our excellence in education, and fund the quality services and parks system that the City is known for, as well as maintenance of our streets, pipes and other infrastructure. How do you propose to expand our commercial tax base?

In order to increase our commercial tax base we must adhere to a strategy of right sized, mixed use development to include residential, retail and office. We must fulfill our vision of mixed use activity centers along Fairfax Boulevard, the Downtown and the Picket and Main node. At the same time, we must implement programs in the city to support our retail establishments through innovative marketing and to revitalize our class B and C office stock through tax assessed financing. A comprehensive marketing program to promote the city as a great place to dine, shop and be entertained and as a great place for businesses will be critical to our success. And taking advantage of new state legislation to allow us to implement a commercial property revitalization program using creative financing tools will help us attract new businesses.

The City’s commercial tax base must be expanded and redeveloped through high-quality new development. The City has already approved two major redevelopment projects in the City, the Novus development in Kamp Washington, and the Scout at the Circle project. These two projects will be high-quality construction and will incorporate design features consistent with smart growth principles. These two projects will expand the City’s tax base by $150 million, with both commercial and residential components.

The anticipated redevelopment of Northfax on 40+ acres of land on both the east and west sides of Chain Bridge Road offer the opportunity for significant investment in those existing commercial properties. The Northfax site is a key node incorporated in the Fairfax Blvd Master Plan and should be redeveloped comprehensively with a cohesive overall plan for the site.

Filling our vacant commercial spaces will provide needed revenue, aid in our economic development efforts and prevent the appearance of a blighted, economically depressed city which will in turn serve to attract new business. In order to retain and attract quality businesses, we need to utilize all available tools with the help of our Economic Development Office and the Economic Development Authority such as the new adjustment to the BPOL [Business/Professional/Occupancy Licenses] tax structure, the Technology Zone and the like to build our commercial base.

3) The City has several retail and commercial areas that would benefit from redevelopment. These include Northfax, the Courthouse shopping center, the area between University Drive and 123 south of Sager, and Kamp Washington. What is your vision for redeveloping these areas?

The areas mentioned in the question as well as Fairfax Circle and Pickett and Main, are the main areas in the city that should be designated as activity centers. These areas are prime locations for mixed use development. Due to the fact that many of these properties have multiple owners, we should promote the idea of a master developer or at least a master plan for each of these areas to facilitate mixed uses. Many developers that are engaged by property owners are single use developers, namely they focus only on residential, retail or office. Therefore, the city needs strong leadership to engage property owners and developers early on in the process to work together and develop a holistic plan for a site that provides for a mix of uses. Since individual projects may not be mixed use, at a minimum, adjacent properties should be interconnected and act collectively as mixed use.

Northfax – The 40+ acres on both the east and west sides of Chain Bridge Road offer the most significant opportunity for a comprehensive redevelopment of a commercial center in the City. I believe Northfax should be developed consistent with the principles of the Fairfax Blvd Master Plan, and should include a walkable “pedestrian village” that contains high-quality residential units, innovative commercial spaces (e-lofts, grocery, retail, and restaurants), creative and strategically designed public spaces, and a street grid that supports public transportation. If elected Mayor, I will lead the Council to search and select a superior design firm of with a national reputation to help the Council, our citizens, and property owners to develop a design plan for the entire site on which consensus can be reached. My goal for the selection of a design firm is no later than September 30, 2017.
Courthouse Plaza Shopping Center – I continue to advocate razing the entire existing shopping center building that includes the Safeway and CVS, as well as the former McDonalds and the former Joe’s Pizza buildings. I strongly believe that the adjacent brick office buildings to the immediate south of the site on University Drive between the shopping center parking lot and the library also be razed. I propose that Whitehead Street between Chain Bridge Road and University Drive be extended to intersect with Old Lee Highway and that a walkable pedestrian grid be developed internally for the site. The internal site would be supported by a multi-tiered parking facility, and would include a new grocery store and pharmacy, as well as retail on the first level. Also on the ground level could be several entertainment venues, including perhaps a multi-screen theater, a draft house, a micro-brewery, and a multi-use live performance space for music and theater/playhouse. The upper levels ought to include high-quality residential units in sufficient quantity to ensure the site’s economic viability.

Area between west side of University Drive and Chain Bridge Road (south of Sager) – This area is currently underutilized and much of it covered with impervious surface. I believe a comprehensive approach to all these parcels will result in a more optimal use of this area. I do not support the proposal submitted by Paradigm for the Davies property. This property should be developed with a density and design consistent with existing adjacent residential neighborhoods. The balance of the area moving north to Sager should also include open green space in an adequate amount and at one or more locations to mitigate existing stormwater runoff and create areas for urban respite. For the area closer to Sager, the City may want to consider multi-family units with an ownership component, as well as some restaurant/commercial on street level.

Kamp Washington – A high priority must be initiating construction of the approved Novus project on the Britt property. I believe the Novus project can be a catalyst for high-quality redevelopment of other sites to the west of Novus, as well as the commercial center to the east of the historic Jermantown cemetery.

There are many areas of the City that would benefit from redevelopment. There are several major redevelopment projects that have been approved and are in various stages of progress. The Comprehensive Plan serves as the official guide or City “Vision” to redevelopment. The zoning ordinance provides the parameters of development. There are two very important factors to the redevelopment of particular sites or “centers” – the economy and the property owner/developer desire to make a change. As we have seen, particularly with the Layton Hall Apartments and Scout on the Circle, a vision and even an approved project does not guarantee an outcome. The economy and the property owner will dictate the timing and extent of a potential redevelopment project. With that in mind, I would like to see future redevelopment of the above listed sites in a size and scale that is appropriate for the surroundings and does not negatively affect current residents and businesses.

Northfax – Should include a street grid system on both sides of Rt 123 that would provide access to a mixed use development with a strong commercial base (quality grocery store, retail shops, entertainment and restaurants) and residential.

Courthouse Shopping Center – Should include a mixed use development with a strong commercial base (quality grocery store, retail shops, entertainment and restaurants) and residential. Entertainment such as a movie theatre and additional residential would bring the people needed to energize the historic downtown.

South of Sager – The surface parking lots could be better utilized with a mix of uses from residential development on the southern end graduating to a more commercial use as you move north.

Kamp Washington – Redevelopment that complements the approved Novus project. Surrounding shopping centers should upgrade their appearance and tenant mix like the current plan for Earth Fare to move into the former Golf Smith store.

4) The City is in the midst of updating its comprehensive plan, including a major update of its transportation plan. The Mayor and City Council also agreed on a set of goals in transportation, redevelopment and other areas for 2016-18. A good plan is tracked over time, to ensure it is being implemented and guides major City decisions and investments. What is your perspective on how we improve our plans and their implementation to enable the City to advance our goals?

In my discussions with the Director of Transportation and the consultant who worked on the multimodal transportation plan, I was clear that we need a better process to vet potential transportation projects in the future. Each potential transportation project should be mapped to a specific goal that is referenced in the comprehensive plan. Our list of potential transportation projects should be graded on how well the project meets the goals and objectives of our comprehensive plan. This process should help us prioritize potential projects before we submit them to various agencies that provide funding for transportation. And finally, the multimodal plan should have a list of specific activities that we need to accomplish to implement that plan and track those line items on an on-going basis.

A best practice in urban design and planning ensures that transportation of people, goods, and services is central to community development. As the City of Fairfax rewrites its Comprehensive Plan, the City’s Multimodal Plan currently under development must be a central driver for how the Comp Plan addresses the redevelopment of commercial centers, new housing initiatives, and associated transportation needs. This integrated planning can contribute significantly to limiting or even eliminating traffic congestion in these centers and in adjacent residential neighborhoods. Including creative and bold transportation design concepts consistently and continually throughout succeeding generations of Comp Plans will result in far greater connectivity of commercial and residential areas whose original design and purpose is increasingly disconnected from what we not only want, but from what we need.

The Comprehensive Plan serves as the official guide or City “Vision” to redevelopment and includes a transportation plan section. It is incumbent on the Mayor and City Council, in conjunction with the Planning Commission, to make sure the update process to the plan stays on schedule, includes civic engagement and includes the goals of the City. It is the duty of the City staff to then carry out the related directions.

5) Complete Streets is a transportation design practice that aims to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities. Do you support a Complete Streets approach to new road projects and road improvement projects? Why, or why not?

Yes. A complete streets policy should be a goal for the Mayor and Council. We must think more broadly about all forms of mobility and free ourselves of the existing paradigms we have about the automobile. This includes requiring interior grid streets, bike and walking paths and interconnections with existing neighborhoods for all new development projects. We should also provide for the same types of capital improvements, as appropriate, in the planning and implementation of public works or other transportation related projects.

I am a strong advocate for adopting and including the principles of “Complete Streets” in our Multimodal Transportation Plan and specific projects for new roads and road improvement projects in the City. When reconfiguring our streets, especially in particular key arteries, we need to ensure space is allocated and design features included for all forms of transportation, including pedestrians, bicyclists, bus riders, as well as mopeds, motorcycles, and automobiles. Our reconstruction of key roadways, such as Old Lee Highway, should consider and reflect both current and future uses of these right-of-ways with creative design features that can accommodate possibly unforeseen transportation needs and technologies decades in the future.

I do support a “Complete Streets” approach to transportation planning. Safe access to transportation for all users is an essential concept whether walking, cycling, driving or utilizing public transportation. I believe the primary focus of our plan should include a review of existing conditions and an evaluation of how we can maximize the potential of our current situation. For example, as we repave and subsequently restripe our roadways, we need to evaluate what should be considered as was the case with the Layton Hall Drive project. While there needs to be a plan, each project should be evaluated to review it in context of its surroundings.

6) The City must continue to address meeting the housing needs of a diverse population. People working in and around the City have a wide range of household incomes, and there is a corresponding need for a wide range of housing options. How can we address this?

It is very clear that we need to work on our mix of housing stock. Over the last several decades most residential construction has been townhomes and single-family dwellings. The recent trend in the city has developers building apartments and condominiums. Once these new developments are complete this will make our housing stock mix more competitive with surrounding jurisdictions. However, some of this residential redevelopment is taking away existing affordable housing options. And we are very short on affordable and senior housing options in the base case. We need to be innovative in attracting and enabling developers to build affordable and/or senior housing in the city. We also need to be creative in looking for public private partnerships that will enable the city, along with land owners and developers, to build affordable and/or senior housing.

The issue of “housing” is as varied as the housing needs we face. Recognizing this, if elected Mayor, I will lead the Council to establish within 30 days a Special Commission on Housing to examine in detail the City’s needs for (1) senior housing; (2) affordable housing, including but not limited to workforce housing; (3) assisted-living housing; and (4) accessible housing for persons with limited mobility, among other possible needs. This Commission will be directed to develop or obtain all needed data, develop findings, report back to the Council with specific recommendations, including scope and target dates for initiation, by September 30, 2017. These recommendations and schedules will then become the basis for funding for the Council’s consideration and adoption in the FY 2018 budget.

Diversity of housing is essential to the fabric of our community. It is important to have a variety of housing types that can meet the needs of the community. We are fortunate to have such a variety in the City. Housing affordability however is a regional issue. We do currently have a tax relief and rent relief program for seniors. As a City we did approve a policy regarding housing affordability in 2015 which was a beginning. We need to continue our focus. It is time to move forward with an ordinance that will outline our expectations in development or redevelopment projects for dedicated affordable dwelling units or cash contributions which can be utilized in a housing fund. We could partner with a non-profit organization or Fairfax County to assist in administering a housing trust fund program.

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