Letter to the Editor: Why the One University plan should not be approved

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By: Neil Gallagher

At its inception, it may seem like a reasonable perhaps even a good idea. Let’s take a plot of land owned by Fairfax County Housing authority, lease it to a developer who in turn will build some affordable low income housing as part of a larger project. What could be wrong with this? Who would oppose increasing the inventory of low income housing in Fairfax County? But then come the details!

Forget that today there are 46 low income town homes on the property, replete with open space and patios. Forget that the 46 families, some with children in the local elementary school up the block, will have to be relocated. Yes, the housing authority “to the best of their ability” will attempt to keep the children in the same school. Yes, the families will receive relocation expenses and will “if they still qualify” will be allowed to return to the new complex, a four story apartment building. What are consequences to these families?

Forget that Fairfax County has a Comprehensive Plan that identifies the land in question, just off of George Mason Campus, as a residential area. Ignore that the land in question is surrounded by low density residential communities. Forget that the Comprehensive Plan, not only suggests that the land be at the same general density of the surrounding communities (6 dwelling units per acre). Also, that the plan states clearly that: any infill development must be consistent with the surrounding properties: should attempt to preserve the neighborhood character: and that any development should not adversely impact the local transportation (roads). After all change does occur!

The solution, lets change the Comprehensive Plan. Let’s start with increasing the density. Rather than 6 dwelling units per acre, let’s allow 53 (almost increasing the density 10X). Let’s build three buildings: a 5 story privately operated dorm that will house 800 students: a four story low income family building that will have 140 units; and a three story low income senior facility that will have 100 units. Together, the three buildings will house well over 1,000 residents and 1,000 cars. But, how about the two residential communities that adjoin the land, both of which are low density single family and town homes communities? Let’s put a 90 foot tree buffer on one side, that looks great on paper but in reality provide minimal protection against noise and light pollution. To make this sound better, let’s add some 10 foot pine trees that will grow at a rate of 2 feet per year as an additional buffer. That should appease those communities.

Forget that this property is on University Drive, a narrow two lane road and a critical access point to two county communities that make up nearly 500 homes. This road is their only direct access out to main roads (like Route 123). Even though today this road is challenged with congestion at the intersection and complicated by the flow of pedestrians (students) attempting to cross the intersection. But, let’s just add 1,000 cars hundreds of yards from the intersection. Let’s not have a meaningful discussion on the impact on the local roads, the intersection, or pedestrian safety. Rather, let’s cite the restrictions of the “proffer law” that prevents local governments from making demands of developers on “offsite” matters (outside of the boundaries of the development proposal). And finally, let’s forget that this law is set for a revision that will occur on July 1. A revision that would allow for this meaningful discussion. Our solution? Let’s get the Comprehensive Plan revised in May. We can’t wait 6 weeks for a discussion on public safety and unnecessary traffic congestion.

Can this really be happening in Fairfax County? Yes, it is but not without conflict and controversy. First the affected communities have made it abundantly clear they are opposed to the size, scale, and impact of this project. Then the Braddock Division Land Use and Environmental Committee was asked to make a recommendation to the Planning Commission. They voted 8-3 against this proposal. On April 24 the Planning Commission held a public meeting where this matter was discussed starting around 1:00am. It was a contentious meeting with affected communities on one side and the developer and “low income housing advocates” on the other side. The hearing ended at 2:40am and the vote postponed until May 8. It will be followed by a Board of Supervisors meeting on May 21 where the board will consider the change to the Comprehensive Plan. If you complain about all this you are reassured that it must still go before the Zoning Board who must still approve the specific details. Forget that the government by its actions have already removed the size, density, scale, and adverse impact on the roads from the discussion.

To be clear, this is not about opposition to low income housing. It is simply about the size, scale, density, and impact of this project on the residential communities that surround the project area. Yes, Fairfax County should take action to improve the inventory of affordable low income housing. They should identify locations where projects of this size make sense or at the very least consider a proposal that accomplishes some of their goals while maintaining the “residential character of the neighborhood”. Common sense suggests that this could and should be done!