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Rerouting the Heart of Fairfax City to Build a Destination

At Main Street and Old Lee Highway, workers hold a steel, brick-shaped pattern used to create a crosswalk. The pattern was pressed into the road, which had been heated. Later, the surface was painted a brick color, at right. Above right, a map shows the downtown area.
At Main Street and Old Lee Highway, workers hold a steel, brick-shaped pattern used to create a crosswalk. The pattern was pressed into the road, which had been heated. Later, the surface was painted a brick color, at right. Above right, a map shows the downtown area. (Photos By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 20, 2006

Fairfax City is holding its breath.

The big day will be sometime around Aug. 5, when officials convert downtown one-way streets to allow two-way traffic, hoping to create a pedestrian-friendly destination for shopping and dining.

City officials say the change is a necessary step in revitalizing the downtown, the part of the city that many have dreamed of turning into a sort of Old Town. They are betting that the changes will not trigger chaos or gridlock at one of Northern Virginia's major intersections, the juncture of Routes 123 (Chain Bridge Road) and 236 (Main Street).

Proprietors of some long-established businesses on Main Street, though, are livid. They say they will be checking their cash registers to gauge the effect of new traffic patterns and diminished parking.

Drivers -- about 37,000 on an average weekday -- will ultimately determine whether the changes are too confusing or time-consuming.

"We want to be known for revitalizing downtown, not for creating gridlock in Northern Virginia," said Mayor Robert F. Lederer. "If it doesn't work, that's what people are going to remember." The city can switch back to one-way traffic, he said, without prohibitive costs.

Some merchants along Main Street are certain that is the plan's fate.

"They're going to realize this is a dismal failure within weeks," said Becky Stoeckel, owner of Executive Press Inc., a printing company. She said city officials have bowed to the wishes of Trammell Crow Co., the lead developer for the Old Town Village project on North Street. She said the change comes at the expense of small businesses that have long existed with one-way traffic and nearby parking.

For many years, the city considered redevelopment schemes, both big and small, to revive its small downtown. Vast hotels. Multiplex movie houses. When it finally found a plan that seemed to fit -- a more modest mix of shops, restaurants, offices and apartments -- the city bought the large block bordered by Chain Bridge Road, North Street and University Drive and relocated the post office and library that had anchored the area. A new home is being built for the library .

But when prospective businesses considered the site, they noted a problem: Traffic heading south on Chain Bridge Road, from Route 50 and Interstate 66, couldn't get there. No left turns were allowed on North Street, forcing drivers to circle several blocks.

Main Street and North Street were converted to one-way streets in 1972, enabling east- and westbound traffic to flow more easily through the city, in essentially the geographic center of Fairfax County. And it does flow.

But flow doesn't necessarily mean stopping and shopping, said Steve Shelesky, managing director of development and investment for Trammell Crow.


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