Re-Imagining Fairfax Boulevard

Most stores along Fairfax City's commercial strip are at least 25 years old and, like Fairfax Center, above, are dominated by the needs of automobiles.
Most stores along Fairfax City's commercial strip are at least 25 years old and, like Fairfax Center, above, are dominated by the needs of automobiles. (By Kim Hart -- The Washington Post)
By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 1, 2007

Traffic-laden Fairfax Boulevard, 3 1/2 miles of dated strip malls, motels and car dealerships, would become a walkable business district designed to attract a blend of shops, offices and restaurants, under a plan emerging in Fairfax City.

Officials and a group of business owners are envisioning the transformation of the stretch, which runs through the heart of the city, saying that revamping it is necessary to maintain its commercial appeal.

City planners and developers recently began putting together a master plan for the area around Fairfax Boulevard, which doubles as Route 50 and Lee Highway. The process will heat up this month with community events to get input from residents, property owners and business owners about what the street should look like.

"There has been very little commercial development around the area," said David Hudson, director of community development and planning for the city. Sprucing up Fairfax Boulevard is necessary, he said, "so it is attractive and continues to grow as an economic engine."

The retail occupancy rate along the corridor is about 95 percent, meaning there is little room for new businesses. About 80 percent of the retail space is more than 25 years old, according to the city's planning department.

A number of the buildings along the well-traveled route date to the 1950s, when the area's first shopping centers were built. The stretch became a commercial hub, with a hodgepodge of businesses rising during the following four decades.

But business growth leveled off about 20 years ago. Nestled between residential neighborhoods and a congested highway system, the road became less of a shopping destination and more of a shortcut from one end of the city to the other. Efforts to create a uniform appearance have been thwarted because many of the buildings are spread out and surrounded by parking lots.

Newer business districts have cropped up just outside the Fairfax City limits. Fairfax Corner, Fairlakes and Merrifield Town Center, for example, have attracted tenants that, some local business owners fear, are bypassing Fairfax Boulevard. And businesses outside the city don't contribute to its tax base.

"These new developments all the way around the city are ones that city residents will use -- and we'll certainly be affected by traffic to these developments -- yet the city doesn't get many of the benefits," Hudson said.

The redevelopment effort began in July 2005, when the City Council renamed that portion of Lee Highway Fairfax Boulevard to strengthen the area's identity. The council then chose 18 people -- all owners of businesses along the strip -- to direct a business improvement district, known as the Fairfax Boulevard Partnership, charged with coming up with a master plan for its redevelopment.

The project is an extension of other center-city renovations, including a shift in traffic patterns, designed to make the city more modern and pedestrian-friendly.

To help defray the expenses of the plan, an additional tax has been assessed on all business and landowners within the district, which stretches from Pickett Road, just east of Fairfax Circle, to Kamp Washington just beyond Jermantown Road.

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