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Closed sign (via Tim Mossholder/Unsplash)

With a high office and commercial vacancy rate and over 1,000 locals experiencing homelessness, Fairfax County is considering a zoning change that could use one problem to help solve the other.

The proposal would allow unused commercial spaces, including office and hotel space, to be used as emergency shelters for those experiencing homelessness.

The new zoning would let private entities — namely nonprofits that work with those experiencing homelessness — operate emergency shelters in vacant or underutilized commercial or industrial properties.

“Special exception use would permit repurposing of a commercial building in a commercial, Industrial, or in some Planned Districts with approval by the Board,” a staff report on the change said. “Commercial building includes buildings designed or used for office, hotel, retail, institutional, or industrial purposes.”

In a presentation to the Board of Supervisors housing committee on Nov. 22, staff said there is currently no “emergency shelter” use in the county zoning code.

In addition to creating an emergency shelter use, the zoning change would add a “permanent supportive housing” use for housing that provides assistance and supportive services, like transportation and training, to residents. Supportive housing is reserved in the zoning ordinance for those making below 60% of the area median income.

The presentation didn’t include information on incentives to get private property owners to open their space up for use used as emergency shelter, but board members still expressed enthusiasm for the idea.

“We’ve had similar conversations to this before, but I think we’re in a different situation right now,” said County Board Chair Jeff McKay, “not only with what we know about homelessness but that we also, unfortunately, have a higher number of vacancies because of Covid. I think it’s time to have a conversation about adaptive reuse.”

The proposed changes are part of a general push by the county to reevaluate how it tackles homelessness, particularly by increasing the availability of permanent and supportive housing instead of relying on temporary shelters.

The last point-in-time count, conducted on Jan. 26, found 1,191 people experiencing homelessness in the county, a decrease from 2021 but higher than the numbers reported in the most recent years preceding the pandemic. About 50% of the individuals counted were Black, even though only 10% of the county’s population falls in that demographic.

During the initial months of the pandemic, the county enlisted hotels as temporary shelter for individuals who were experiencing homelessness or otherwise lacked space needed for isolating or quarantining due to Covid.

Photo via Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

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Cyclists on the Mount Vernon Trail (via National Park Service)

The George Washington Memorial Parkway and the mostly parallel Mount Vernon Trail could see some substantial changes, with the former being narrowed and the latter being widened.

The plans cover the southern portion of the parkway, covering 15.2 miles from Arlington Memorial Bridge to Mount Vernon. This area includes the majority of the Mount Vernon Trail, though a portion of the parkway and trail through Alexandria isn’t part of the project.

The National Park Service (NPS) will soon present and accept public comment on plans that aim to boost safety with a variety of changes for both pedestrians and drivers along the corridor.

“The road and trail improvements being considered would enhance the visitor experience for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists,” the NPS said in a release. “Potential improvements to the road include the implementation of a new road diet (reducing lanes through pavement striping to improve safety) in some areas, new crosswalks and intersection changes. Potential safety enhancements for the trail could include trail widening and intersection improvements.”

A virtual meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 6. The meeting will be virtual (Webinar ID: 314-024-315).

Comments can be submitted after the meeting online until Jan. 4.

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The newly constructed I-66 Express Lanes from Gainesville to Centreville will open ahead of schedule (courtesy FAM Construction)

If you’re driving along the highways in Northern Virginia, do you usually hop into an express lane or do you prefer to tough it out in the normal lanes with the rest of the proletariat?

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) announced last week that the new I-66 Express Lanes running from the Beltway down to Centreville are set to fully open today (Tuesday).

“[VDOT and partners] announced today that the westbound direction of the new 66 Express Lanes from I-495 (Capital Beltway) to Route 28 in Centreville remains on schedule to open on or about this Saturday, Nov. 19,” VDOT said in a release. “The eastbound direction of this same 13-mile section of express lanes is expected to open by the end of November and could open as early as next Tuesday, Nov. 22, depending on weather and other factors.”

Along with the expansion, this month marks the 10-year anniversary of the express lanes opened on I-495. Since Express Lanes started being added to the highways around Northern Virginia, they’ve become largely ubiquitous along I-495, I-95 and I-395.

Intended to allow faster travel, the lanes charge vehicles based on demand, which can lead to eye-popping tolls. In two weeks, drivers will need to have at least two passengers to use the I-66 lanes for free, an increase from the current HOV-2 requirement.

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Residents at Engleside Mobile Home Park (courtesy Tenants and Workers United)

Residents of a mobile home community off Route 1 held a rally Tuesday (Nov. 15) to voice concerns that new ownership could push out current residents.

At a gathering with representatives of community organizers Tenants and Workers United, residents from Engleside Mobile Home Park and Ray’s Mobile Home Colony shared concerns that a recent purchase of the property could lead to rent hikes and evictions.

Marianela Reynado explained that the Engleside property was sold to $24.2 million to Pacific Current Partners despite efforts by residents and a nonprofit to raise funds to purchase the property and keep it affordable.

The sale was finalized Tuesday, according to TWU. Pacific Current Partners could not be reached for comment.

Residents organized in 2020 to oppose a plan that added density to the site. The building owners at the time said there were no plans to redevelop the lot in the near future. The recent sale, however, has raised doubts about those assurances.

According to TWU, residents were notified this September that the owners at the time, Ahora Company LC and Rapido Company LC, had gotten offer from Pacific Current Partners and intended to sell the mobile home parks just two months later.

“I’ve lived in this community for 14 years,” Saul Hernandez said. “It’s a good space, a place for our children. It’s a safe place, a calm place, and knowing that this is a place where there could be an increase in our rents… it’s a place we don’t want that to happen.”

Larisa Zehr, an attorney from Legal Aid Justice Center, told attendees at the rally that there are only eight mobile home parks in Fairfax County, meaning there are increasingly few places in the area available to mobile homeowners.

“Mobile home parks fill an important gap in available affordable housing,” Zehr said. “They’re relatively affordable without subsidy and an asset, as residents have said today, which is very different than an apartment complex where the rent goes to a landlord and the tenant has nothing.”

Another one of the county’s mobile housing communities, Harmony Place in Hybla Valley, was sold to a developer in December, even though residents offered $1.5 million more to take ownership, according to DCist.

A manufactured housing task force created by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors last year delivered a report in September with recommendations for how to preserve the county’s 1,750 “mobile” housing units and ensure they remain affordable.

The county has adopted the term manufactured homes, rather than mobile homes, which it says is misleading.

“Unlike traditional homeownership in which the property and the home is owned by a single entity, manufactured homes are typically owned by the occupant who rents the land from a separate entity,” Fairfax County Housing and Community Development said. “In most cases, the homes are not mobile.”

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Farmers market (via Fairfax County)

While the onset of winter usually heralds the end of farmers markets, Fairfax County announced last week that three markets around the county will brave the chill to continue into December.

“The Fairfax County Farmers Markets have extended the season at three popular market locations,” the Fairfax County Park Authority said in a release. “The Reston Farmers Market will remain open until Dec. 3, 2022; the Burke Farmers Market is open until Dec. 17, 2022; and the McCutcheon/Mt. Vernon Farmers Market will be open until Dec. 21, 2022.”

Along with the extended season, some of the markets will be getting a handful of new vendors and new wintery items typically not available in the other seasons.

“Our farmers and producers will continue to bring an abundance of winter squash, greens, apples, potatoes, fresh-baked breads, locally raised meats, and unique prepared foods,” the release said. “Extended season vendors will bring new products, such as macaroons, bagels, kombucha, Moroccan sauces and more. Be sure to visit Burke, Reston and McCutcheon/Mt. Vernon to support your favorite vendors through the season, and to welcome our new vendors.”

The farmers markets with extended hours are:

  • Burke (5671 Roberts Parkway): April 16-Dec. 17, from 8 a.m. to noon
  • Reston (1609-A Washington Plaza): April 30-Dec. 3, from 8 a.m. to noon
  • McCutcheon/Mount Vernon (2501 Sherwood Hall Lane): April 20-Dec. 21, from 8 a.m. to noon

Customers and vendors had requested a continuation into December for the Mount Vernon market — typically the last one to close just before Thanksgiving, according to Park Authority spokesperson Judith Pedersen.

The Burke and Reston markets were also chosen for extensions, because they’re held on Saturdays, are the park authority’s largest, and “have vendors with enough products and product mix to sustain a vibrant market,” Pedersen told FFXnow.

“Unfortunately, the weather is too unpredictable to extend through the winter,” she said. “However, all vendors from the other markets are invited to participate in the extended season at these markets if they have product to sell.”

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Tysons Corner Center’s 2021 tree lighting (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

The winter holiday season is kicking off in Tysons next week with a holiday tree lighting ceremony, featuring an appearance from Santa.

The event is planned to include Santa lighting the tree, a few musical performances, complimentary s’mores and hot chocolate, and more. The event is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 18, from 6-8 p.m. in The Plaza section of Tysons Corner Center (1961 Chain Bridge Road).

The event is free and open to the public, with prior registration not required.

According to the mall’s website:

Tysons Corner Center will bring the community together to join Santa in kicking off our 2022 Holiday Season. Programming will include Santa lighting the Holiday tree, community performances, words from our Fairfax County Executives, complimentary s’mores and hot chocolate bar, giant snow globe, pop-up Holiday market featuring our Retailers, custom beverages by Barrel + Bushel, holiday music, giveaways, and more.

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Guy in hoodie holds head in hands (via Christian Erfurt/Unsplash)

A new survey of Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) students shows local teens have been facing a decline in mental health over the last few years.

The Fairfax County Youth Survey is an anonymous and voluntary survey of students in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12. The newest survey, compiled from the 2021 school year, involved the participation of 33,479 students. There was no survey during 2020, making this the first look at student health since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

The report said FCPS students were more depressed than at any other time in the past decade.

“In 2021, the rates of feeling persistent sadness or hopelessness among Fairfax County youth were highest in the past 10 years,” the report said.

FCPS is hardly alone in this: the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report earlier this year reporting poor mental health among teens and children nationwide. While Fairfax County’s figures are high, they’re still below the national average.

FCPS versus national statistics on student mental health (via FCPS)

The report said that every measure of depression showed a marked increase over the past few years:

The greatest increase was observed in the percentage of students with persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Overall, almost two-fifths of the students in 8th, 10th, and 12th grade (38.1%) reported feeling so sad or hopeless for two or more weeks in a row in the past year that they stopped doing some usual activities. More than 41% (41.6%) of 12th grade students reported such feelings, as compared to 35.0% of 8th grade students. Overall, the percentage of students reporting this level of sadness was about 8 percentage points higher than in 2019 (29.9%), reaching the highest point in the past 10 years.

The report also found that female, Hispanic, and LGBTQ students as well as students from food-insecure homes were all more likely to experience depression.

Students also reported an increase in bullying at home from parents or other adults.

“One in four students (24.8%) reported having been bullied, taunted, ridiculed, or teased by a parent or other adult in their household in the past year,” the report said, “which increased from 22.9% in 2019, and is the highest in the past 6 years.”

Around 8% of students reported experiencing physical abuse at home.

Additional highlights from the report include:

  • The rates of reporting persistent feelings of sadness/hopelessness, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts increased among Fairfax County youth this year, following the national trends.
  • More than 38% of the students in 8th, 10th and 12th grade reported feeling so sad or hopeless for two or more weeks in a row in the past year that they stopped doing some usual activities (persistently sad or hopeless). Approximately 17% reported suicidal thoughts and 6% reported suicide attempts.
  • Female students were more likely to express high stress, persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, consider attempting suicide and attempt suicide compared to male students.
  • Students of Hispanic ethnicity and students of other/multiple races were most likely to express feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness, consider suicide and attempt suicide.
  • Students who identified themselves as transgender or gay/lesbian/bisexual reported higher rates of stress, feelings of sadness/hopelessness, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. The data shows that they also face greater challenges that can affect their mental health including emotional and physical abuse by a parent or adult, forced sexual intercourse and sexual harassment.
  • Students who reported a lack of food in their home were more likely to report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts than those from food-secure homes.

The full report is available online.

Photo via Christian Erfurt/Unsplash

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Students at McLean High School (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated at 6:25 p.m. on 11/6/2022) Fairfax County Public Schools might be underestimating future overcrowding in the Tysons area, a new report from the McLean Citizens Association (MCA) says.

FCPS typically forecasts enrollment over the next five years in its annual Capital Improvement Program (CIP). A breakdown of that report alongside analysis of the county’s proffers — developer contributions required to offset the impact of new projects on local infrastructure — suggests higher future population counts in the Tysons area than what FCPS is predicting.

Jim Beggs, chairman of MCA’s Education and Youth Committee, presented the findings at a meeting of the MCA on Wednesday (Nov. 2), starting at the 23:53 mark.

“FCPS staff does projections every year for five years,” Beggs said. “Their projections focused on trends in migration in and out of the county, transfers within our area, and birth rate trends in our area.”

FCPS develops its own density projections to estimate what is going to happen in the schools, but Beggs said the specifics of development around Tysons might get lost in the mix as staff analyzes density countywide.

Part of the county’s proffer analysis includes estimates of a development’s impact on public schools, and Beggs said those numbers don’t always line up with the school system’s projections.

“The Tysons Corner area, we think, is a different animal,” Beggs said. “There’s a tremendous amount of development going on, and we think this analysis should be supplemented by a look at what is going on and how is the development activity looking like it’s going to impact our schools. If we look at that projection, how does it compare to the FCPS staff CIP projection?”

Beggs said comparing the two reports showed seven schools where the impact in the proffers is significantly higher than what FCPS is predicting:

Spring Hill Elementary School

  • FCPS projection: 101% capacity in five years
  • Proffers data: 136-147% capacity
  • Disparity between the two reports: 35-46%

Marshall High School

  • FCPS projection: 92% capacity in five years, if the modular units at the school are included
  • Proffers data: 109-115% capacity
  • Disparity: 17-23%

Kilmer Middle School

  • FCPS projection: 89% capacity in five years with modular units included
  • Proffers data: 110-116% capacity
  • Disparity: 21-27%

Westbriar Elementary School

  • FCPS projection: 83% capacity in five years
  • Proffers data: 109-134% capacity
  • Disparity: 26-51%

Westgate Elementary School

  • FCPS projection: 85% capacity in five years
  • Proffers data: 134-148% capacity
  • Disparity: 50-64%

McLean High School

  • FCPS projection: 105% capacity in five years
  • Proffers data: 123-124% capacity
  • Disparity: 17-19%

Longfellow Middle School

  • FCPS projection: 92% capacity in five years
  • Proffers data: 108-111% capacity
  • Disparity: 16-19%

Beggs said those figures from the proffers data backs up existing concerns in the community about overcrowding in McLean High School.

All of these schools are impacted by new residential development on going in the Tysons area, Beggs said, adding that he mostly wants FCPS to just double check the math on the student population projections for the area.

“I’m saying, ‘We’d like you to take a look at these four or five schools that are heading to trouble,” Beggs said. “You’re looking at 198 [schools]. We’re asking you to focus on four or five in our area. In general, capacity issues can be solved by border adjustments, capital renovation, or putting a modular in. At the end of the day, we’re recommending staff go back and take a second look.”

Elaine Tholen, who represents the Dranesville District, including McLean, on the Fairfax County School Board says she has seen MCA’s report and has scheduled a meeting with FCPS staff to review the data.

“As always, I appreciate the work of MCA,” she said.

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McLean Antiques Show (image via Fairfax County Government/YouTube)

The McLean Antiques Show & Sale is returning to McLean next month for its 46th year.

The event, sponsored by the McLean Community Center (MCC) at 1234 Ingleside Avenue, is described in a release as a “treasure hunt.”

“[The sale] will feature an exciting selection of designer vintage clothing and American Folk Art as well as well-known traditional show offerings,” the release said.

The show is scheduled for 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 12 and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 13. Admission is $10 per person for both days of the show, though anyone under 18 gets in for free.

The McLean Antiques Show & Sale typically brings in dealers from across the eastern seaboard, from New England to North Carolina, but the release said there will be some differences this year.

“This year’s show will be more diverse than in the past,” the release said. “Dealers will feature traditional offerings of fine jewelry, paintings, furniture, porcelains, a variety of interesting collectibles, accessories and Oriental rugs as well as a larger selection of designer vintage clothing and accessories, American Folk Art and country furnishings.”

The full list of dealers can be found online.

“Dealers offer unusual, quality items from various corners of the world,” said show manager Dordy Fontinel in the release. “The continued emerging trend of antiques and vintage items is appealing to sustainability-minded customers and provides a beautiful, greener alternative.”

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A rendering of the duplexes proposed to replace the Vienna Courts condos (via Town of Vienna)

The Vienna Town Council says a plan for new duplexes shows promise but isn’t quite ready for approval yet.

At a meeting on Oct. 24, the council said there are lingering concerns about the lot coverage — how much of a site is built on by a development — for the Vienna Courts project. Developer BFR Construction has proposed a set of duplexes at the Vienna Courts offices 127-133 Park Street NE. The project would replace four office buildings with 14 two-family dwellings.

The developer has asked the town for an exemption to lot coverage limits so it can build on 70% of a site where the city’s zoning only allows 25% lot coverage.

“The applicant is requesting a lot coverage of 70%,” the staff report said. “The proposed style of the development does not lend itself to the stated 25% maximum due to the number of units and required parking area.”

“Your lot coverage is significantly higher than anybody else,” Councilmember Steve Potter said. “Living next to a construction site and seeing the lack of space that is on their properties and how it intrudes onto the public streets and how it impacts school bus routes and people doing their walking and all that, I wonder if that has been given careful consideration.”

The project had previously received a mixed reception from the Planning Commission.

Town leaders said lot coverage is an issue with the project, but they believe a compromise is possible.

“I’m not sure if we’re quite ready to vote on this tonight, but you have gotten some feedback,” Mayor Linda Colbert said. “I think it’s a beautiful project, and I look forward to looking at this again.”

The project was scheduled to be reviewed again at a meeting on Monday, Nov. 14.

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