Among urban planners in Northern Virginia, the U.S. Route 1 corridor in southeast Fairfax has long been viewed as a cautionary tale — a once-thriving community that’s been laid low by decades of neglect, short-sighted zoning decisions and some bad luck. The arrival of Interstate 95 in 1952 also hurt U.S. 1, turning one of the region’s busiest arteries into an afterthought for many drivers.
Since the mid 1970s, the area has become better known for body shops, check-cashing businesses and auto title loan companies than for a rich history that dates back to George Washington and colonial times. Before losing its luster, Route 1 served as Fairfax County’s primary gateway to Alexandria and Washington, D.C., for nearly 200 years.
Fortunately, things are changing for the better. Investment is being made, a vision is being created, and new constructions springing up along the corridor.
A big chunk of the recent activity can be traced to the BRAC-related expansion of Fort Belvoir. Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Defense awarded $180 million to VDOT and Fairfax County to widen a 3.5-mile stretch of Richmond Highway (U.S. 1) between Va. 235 and Telegraph Road from four to six lanes. In addition to the road widening, accommodations were made for transit, bicycle and pedestrian access — critical elements that will rebrand U.S. 1 as a multimodal community that understands the needs of its residents and is capable of attracting dynamic new businesses.
While transit and transportation upgrades are critical to U.S. 1’s future viability, they are just one piece in a complex puzzle. Creating viable, self-sustaining communities requires a well-honed strategy that works for both residents and retailers. Many communities across our region have attempted to remake themselves, and a large number have failed. Positive change requires more than securing a pile of developer money and erecting a bunch of shiny new apartment buildings, restaurants and shopping malls.
Yes, all of those elements are helpful in establishing a vibrant community. People need places to eat, sleep, play and work.
That said, the characteristic most successful redevelopment projects share is a long-term plan that addresses key issues at the 5-, 10-, 20- and even 50-year mark. That plan should include a healthy amount of community engagement and establish the proper balance between supply and demand. There is such a thing as too much retail space. Same goes for housing. Are you set up for families that own four cars or single professionals who rely on transit?
Several areas around Fairfax County are undergoing — or about to undergo — major transformations. Tysons Corner has received most of the county’s attention, but the list also includes Merrifield and future Silver Line destinations Reston and Herndon. Each of those places has a different set of challenges. Along U.S. 1, it begins with changing perceptions. For 30-plus years, the corridor has been viewed as an endless line of strip malls with blighted buildings, traffic-choked roads and higher than average crime rates.
Local leaders and county officials have begun chipping away at that image. Revamping the area’s transportation network got the ball rolling and a slow but steady stream of construction projects have added to the momentum.
Some of the issues inherent to U.S. 1 — aging infrastructure, crowded schools, crime—will require more time, money and creativity to fix themselves, but it’s safe to say the arrow is finally pointing in the right direction.
If it’s true that every county is only as good as its weakest link, the recent headlines coming out of U.S. 1 are good news for every Fairfax resident.