Contentious battles over development are nothing new to Fairfax County.
However, the 10.8 acres of land at the corner of University Drive and Route 123 across from George Mason University’s Fairfax campus is now at the center of a particularly heated fight, as county officials weigh whether to increase density on the site to accommodate a proposed private development that would combine affordable and student housing.
The three parcels targeted by the One University project are currently home to Robinson Square, a complex consisting of 46 affordable townhomes and 14,208 square feet of office space used by the Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
Under an unsolicited proposal submitted to FCRHA, private developers would transform the site into approximately 240 affordable multifamily units, including about 100 units specifically for seniors, along with roughly 360 student housing units and potentially some limited space for community use.
While few would likely dispute the need in Fairfax County for more affordable housing, existing traffic challenges and anxieties about the possible effect on the surrounding area’s character has many residents of nearby neighborhoods questioning the suitability of the One University project site.
“The Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan says that it should be six dwelling units per acre. It should be compatible with the adjoining neighborhoods, and we argue that it is neither,” Neil Gallagher, a resident of the adjacent Royal Legacy neighborhood, said. “It’s too big. To go from six to 53 dwelling units [per acre] is a very dramatic change.”
Consisting of single-family houses, the Royal Legacy and Chancery Park neighborhoods both sit on the City of Fairfax line and are separated from the Robinson Square development mostly by a tree buffer, though a chain-link fence serves an additional divider in some places.
The Fairfax Gateway neighborhood located on the other side of Route 123 in Fairfax County would also be affected by the proposed development, since residents worry that an influx of families in Robinson Square would contribute to crowding in schools as well as area traffic.
Gallagher was one of many residents who spoke out against the One University project on Apr. 8 at a community information meeting held in the Fairfax Villa Elementary School cafeteria.
Organized by Braddock District Supervisor John Cook’s office, the meeting specifically focused on a proposed Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan amendment that would increase the site density from the three to four dwelling units per acre currently recommended in the plan to 56 dwelling units per acre to support the number of housing units proposed by developers.
The county planning staff’s report on the proposed amendment acknowledged that the suggested increase would result in density “significantly greater” than the existing site and neighborhoods to the north, but they argue that the property’s proximity to George Mason could make it work as a transition from the residential neighborhoods to the institutional use of the university.
In a small concession, staff lowered its initial recommendation of up to 600 housing units down to 580 units with a minimum of 240 affordable units in its presentation on Tuesday.
“These buildings would be similar in size to the buildings on George Mason’s campus across the street,” Cook said before the meeting. “…It would change the nature of that street. It makes it more urbanized, but we have needs to meet, and density is part of the way that we meet those needs.”
According to county documents, the private real estate developers RISE Student Housing and SCG Development submitted a proposal to bring a mix of affordable and student housing to the county-owned property next to George Mason to the Fairfax County Department of Procurement and Material Management on July 21, 2017.
After evaluating the proposal, the Redevelopment and Housing Authority determined that it had enough merit to consider further through the county’s rezoning process.
With a median income of $117,200 for a household of four that ranks among the highest in the U.S., Fairfax County is projected to need more than 62,000 new housing units in the next 15 years, including 15,000 for individuals who earn less than 60 percent of the area median income, according to the FCRHA’s Fiscal Year 2018 annual report.
The county’s FY 2019 housing blueprint puts the county’s total affordable housing gap for low and moderate-income renters at 31,360 units. The county will also need about 40,000 net new workforce housing units, which serve people earning up to 120 percent of the area median income, through 2032.
According to the Fairfax County Communitywide Housing Strategic Plan, elderly households present the second greatest need for affordable housing in the county, behind small family and single households, with households that have at least one person who is 75 or older more likely to be low-income.
As the U.S. population overall continues to get older, that issue will likely become exacerbated in the future.
Braddock District resident Shari Zamarra, who represents the Faith Communities in Action network on the Fairfax County Community Action Advisory Board, attended the community meeting on Tuesday to voice her support for the One University project as long as it brings more affordable housing to Fairfax County.
“Where do we expect people to live?” Zamarra asked. “…I know it isn’t easy, but somebody needs to look at the big picture and the common good about what kind of county we want to live in.”
Still, while Zamarra lives in the area around GMU, she does not reside in the neighborhoods that would be most directly affected by the project and admitted that she would probably be concerned by the proposal if she did.
“But I would try to keep a perspective of the common good and the people that need a place to live,” Zamarra added.
Overall, though, the reaction to the county’s proposed comprehensive plan amendment on Tuesday was overwhelmingly negative.
Royal Legacy resident Terry Larkin says she appreciated the county presentation’s emphasis on the need to maintain buffers between residential neighborhoods and any new development on the site, but she finds it hard to envision the three proposed buildings fitting on the existing lot.
According to an interim agreement between the One University Development Partners and the FCRHA, the proposed development would require the construction of affordable housing units in four-story buildings with surface and deck parking, along with five to six-story buildings with parking for approximately 360 units, or 713 beds, of student housing.
A traffic impact study commissioned by Fairfax County and conducted by the engineering consultant firm Wells + Associates found that traffic conditions at the intersection of Braddock Road and Ox Road will degrade regardless of whether development occurs at the One University site.
However, the project would lead to increased delays and queuing at the University Drive and Ox Road intersection, where “heavy pedestrian volumes” and traffic signal timing that gives a disproportionate amount of “green time” to Ox Road already leads to “significant delays and vehicular queues on University Drive,” according to the study.
“Traffic is terrible as it is, and logistically for the traffic, it does not make sense,” Larkin said. “The fact that they want to put a seven-story building looking down a very small residential community is not compatible with that part of the community, so it’s just very unfortunate that they’re trying to put this and they’re trying to get it through so quickly.”
Cook disputed arguments that Fairfax County is trying to fast-track approval for the One University development, countering that the county is trying to be more efficient in making decisions.
“I don’t think two years is a rushed schedule,” the supervisor said.
County officials emphasized on Tuesday that no final decision has been made regarding the plan amendment or, by extension, the proposed development.
The plan amendment needs to be approved by the Fairfax County Planning Commission, which has scheduled a hearing on the issue for Apr. 24, as well as the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, which has a hearing on May 21.
If the plan amendment is approved, the county will schedule a community meeting to discuss rezoning, which would require developers to lay out their proposal in more specific detail.
Cook says the One University project has enough benefits in terms of providing new affordable and student housing to be worth considering, but he also allowed that the site in question is not exactly ideal.
“This project will help meet longstanding county goals, but it’s a difficult location,” Cook said. “The transportation in the intersection is difficult. It’s tucked up against residential homes in the back, so that makes it tricky. That’s why we’re very interested in getting comments from people and trying to see what everyone can work out.”