Fairfax County Ponders What It Wants to Be

By Sandhya Somashekhar and Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 5, 2009

Fairfax County has long been viewed as the ultimate burb, where Washington goes to walk the dog and water the lawn. But the more residents look around, the more they see what many have tried to avoid: high-rise offices, blight, crime and housing that's more likely to have a balcony than a back yard.

That changing reality came into focus last week when County Executive Anthony H. Griffin raised the possibility of officially making Fairfax a city, prompting discussion among county supervisors about whether the community of more than 1 million residents should highlight its status as an enormous jobs center that is rapidly urbanizing or embrace its classic suburban nature.

The basis for the idea is largely tactical -- under state law, cities have more taxing power and greater control over roads than counties do -- and it led to more than a few snickers about the thrilling nightlife in downtown Fairfax (punch line: there isn't any).

Regardless of whether the county changes its status, a process that requires approval from voters, the state and courts, the discussion underscored a growing tension within Virginia's largest jurisdiction. What does Fairfax want to be? A giant urban expanse like many new Sun Belt cities? Or more of a residential suburb, with a handful of urbanized pockets sprinkled in?

The Fairfax of today is somewhere in between. Its 400 square miles include a sea of cul-de-sacs, parks, pools and soccer fields, especially in its southern and western stretches. McLean and Great Falls remain high-end havens for some of the region's most exclusive addresses. Clifton still feels like the country.

Meanwhile, dense, Arlington County-style urban villages are quickly claiming the skylines of Vienna, Merrifield and Springfield, and county plans envision those and other developments ballooning over the next decade. Tysons Corner is already an economic and commercial behemoth, and it's only going to get bigger as development clusters around the Metrorail extension. The Route 1 corridor and other pockets are increasingly marked by blight.

On an uncrowded weekday afternoon at Old Keene Mill Swim and Racquet Club in Burke last week, Fairfax's still-shining suburban glory was on display. A gaggle of children with rackets under their arms ran up a hill to tennis courts. A mother coated her daughter with sunscreen by the pool, where a few dozen kids splashed and adults sat under giant umbrellas. Another mother walked from her car with packets of hot dogs and buns toward the club's grills and picnic tables.

"I personally would hate to see any more of a city feel to Fairfax County," Nancy Ohanian, 52, said while floating on foam noodles with her 9-year-old daughter. "We're losing so many trees. And I sure don't want to see my taxes go any higher."

For these families, Burke is their corner of suburban bliss, a community so complete that they rarely venture more than a mile or two beyond their homes.

"It had all the ingredients that I wanted for my family," said Mary Holden, 46, a mother of four. "My kids' schools, their sports teams, their friends, the shopping -- it's all here. I can go a whole week not ever leaving Burke, quite happy."

Holden and others probably would be quite unhappy if they ventured about 10 miles north to Merrifield. There, two sleek new five-story apartment buildings rise from a weedy parking lot. The bottom floor of one building is taken up by restaurants, a jewelry store and a tailor. The sound of nearby traffic roars as workers in scrubs from the nearby hospital brush past women with strollers and groups of young men.

It was in Merrifield that county leaders celebrated their newest "park" last month -- a brick-lined plaza with a fountain and some benches centered between new apartment buildings.

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