Urbanizing Fairfax considers expansion of parking limits

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2011

Fairfax County residents will have a harder time finding a free parking space in some neighborhoods if transportation planners get their way.

Working to ease traffic jams in the steadily urbanizing suburb, the county's Transportation Department is drafting proposed rules that would limit parking in new developments near Metro lines. Such parking limits have already been adopted by the Board of Supervisors as part of the plan governing Tysons Corner's transformation into an urban hub.

But imposing maximums in other parts of Fairfax where transit-oriented development exists would represent a significant departure in a suburb where generations of planners drew up plans around the automobile.

"This is a major shift. Other than Tysons, you could say this will be a first," said Dan Rathbone, chief of the transportation planning division in Fairfax.

Similar measures have been adopted in Montgomery County and other jurisdictions where population growth and new settlement patterns have transformed areas from suburbs into cities. Fairfax planners have paid particularly close attention to the transformation of neighboring Arlington County from a backwater of parking lots into a high-rise Metro corridor. Ballston's towers grew out of Parkington Shopping Center, whose name reflected one of its favorable attributes when it opened in 1951. Yet the number of jurisdictions in the United States that impose parking maximums on developers is still perhaps fewer than 50, Rathbone said.

"We often like to say that too much parking can be a traffic magnet," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "If we're going to address traffic and make a walkable community in Fairfax, it's important to get the parking right."

Still, some builders and county officials are wary. In a county that covers about 400 square miles, they wonder whether people would buy homes without having a place to park.

"I think everybody recognizes there's a need for new parking ratios and parking limits, but the challenge is to figure out what are the right numbers," said Jon Lindgren, director of operations for the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association. "It's mostly just making sure that builders have the flexibility to develop and build the kind of units that people want."

Flexibility concerns

Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock) said he endorses the general concept of encouraging people who reside near Metro to use mass transit more and their cars less, but he also expressed unease about the measure's potential intrusiveness and lack of flexibility.

"You're really talking about not allowing developers to build parking spaces? How can you limit the number of cars somebody owns?" Cook said.

He and other skeptics wonder what would happen to people who purchased a townhouse with limited parking but then switched jobs or encountered some other circumstance affecting their ability to commute to work by Metro.

"They can't take the Metro if it goes the wrong way," Cook said.

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