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Saturday, August 6, 2016

Urban design experts recommend short-term fixes for Annandale

Columbia Pike and Tom Davis Drive: Picture a "pop-up" plaza here.
Short-term fixes to make central Annandale more inviting could include a plaza for community gatherings, streetscape improvements to promote walkability, and a new nonprofit organization to implement revitalization strategies. 

Those are some of the recommendations of a Technical Assistance Panel (TAP) convened by the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

The panel spent two days in Annandale last month to explore challenges to redevelopment in the Annandale Commercial Revitalization District (CRD) and met with community stakeholders and staff from the Fairfax County Office of Community Revitalization. They came up with solutions that can be accomplished in the short term, three to five years, and medium term, up to 10 years.

Members of the Annandale TAP included an urban designer, planner, architect, landscape architect, real estate developer, and project manager. It’s chaired by Nat Bottigheimer, a transportation planner at Fehr & Peers, DC.

The group presented its findings at a public meeting July 21 and plans to publish a report within the next few weeks.

The panel believes Annandale has the potential to become more of a town center, like Shirlington in Arlington or central Rockville, Md.

They outlined several assets – including Annandale’s diversity, large number of popular restaurants, high homeownership rates, strong arterial road access, and good bus service – and identified the following challenges that are discouraging redevelopment:
  • Limited links between the commercial center and surrounding neighborhoods.
  • The lack of community gathering places.
  • Too much through-traffic.
  • Insufficient public parking in the commercial center.
  • A “fragmented pedestrian environment,” such as sidewalks that start and stop.
  • A need for broader business stakeholder engagement.
  • A need for branding and promoting the image of Annandale.
  • Multiple property owners and small property sizes.
The group also found the cost of multifamily residential development doesn’t provide enough of a return on investment considering the amount of rental income that would be generated. compared to areas like Merrifield where people are willing to pay higher rents.

The panel focused on improvements in one area – Columbia Pike between John Marr Drive and Little River Turnpike – and proposed some solutions that could be done relatively quickly and inexpensively.

The goal of the TAP is to move Annandale toward the vision in the county’s Comprehensive Plan. That means high-quality design, a walkable community-serving commercial and mixed-use area, new residential development, a strategy for business retention and enhancement, green spaces, civic gathering places, and transportation improvements.

Because government agencies “aren’t the best fit” for providing such services, the panel recommended establishing a non-governmental, nonprofit “main street or business improvement district” to promote businesses and the Annandale CRD, organize activities and events, encourage business engagement, support public art, and coordinate with the county on maintaining and improving public facilities.

Examples of these kinds of entities include the Main Street America network operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the D.C. government’s Main Streets Program aimed at revitalizing 10 traditional retail corridors, such as Barracks Row on Capitol Hill.

To bring the community together, the TAP recommends creating a temporary, “pop-up” plaza on part of the  parking lot at the corner of Columbia Pike and Tom Davis Drive, the existing site of the Taste of Annandale.

It could be done as a community project with artificial turf and temporary furniture and planters and could be used as a public gathering place and for special events and a farmers market. In fact, the panel recommended moving the Annandale Farmers Market from Mason District Park to the Annandale CRD.

Eventually, the temporary plaza could be become permanent when more redevelopment occurs. “If we can make an environment that’s cool and fun,” people will want to live there and will pay higher rents, said one of the panelists.

The group called for creating a central, walkable area along Columbia Pike west of John Marr. Traffic volume and speed could be reduced by cutting the number of lanes from four to two and adding on-street parking and bike lanes. That could be easily accomplished by striping within the existing curbs.

Another recommendation calls for the county to assign or hire a staff person to be an “Annandale ambassador” to help organize festivals and facilitate business permitting and development processes.

The panel was also asked to come up with a longer-term “catalytic idea” that could overcome some of the challenges that are discouraging redevelopment.

The panel’s answer: Formation of a public/private partnership to spearhead a mixed-use redevelopment project on the eight-acre site of the Annandale Volunteer Department and Annandale Christian Community for Action (ACCA) building on Columbia Pike.

The new project could incorporate ACCA, a new community center, 500 units of housing, ground-floor retail, and a county-owned parking facility. The fire station could be relocated or could be part of the new project.


  1. Cutting the lanes from 4 to 2 will just make Gallows Road incredibly busy instead. The speed limit is already 25 there. How slow do they want cars to go? Please no on street parking there as that will really mess traffic up. One of the problems with Annandale "downtown" is that it is so incredibly ugly. Either move out the car loan places or make them paint them like normal businesses instead of their garish look. Some plants instead of a parking lot that holds 20 cars and needs spaces for 4 would be nice. Much could be done to beautify Annandale. Cutting car lanes is the typical "planner's" reaction to everything. They could easily improve sidewalks and actually put in grass or small trees next to them. I do like the ACCA idea. Spend some money on landscaping rather than an ambassador.

    1. There's lots of traffic in Northern Virginia, but not everywhere equally. In 20 years of Annandale residency, I can't ever remember a traffic jam on the stretch of Columbia Pike between John Marr and Backlick Road. Is there a time of day that there is a consistent backup there, which I just haven't run across yet?

      What I'm hearing proposed here is pretty similar to what's been done in Arlington on Wilson Blvd. between Geo. Mason Dr. and the Fairfax county line. A lightly traveled 4 lane became a reasonably traveled 2 lane w/ center turn lane. As a result, it's calmed traffic speeds (because there's no room to pass if someone wants to go 20 mph over the limit), it's become pedestrian friendly--it can be crossed without terror or a dead sprint--and if you just cant stand the 30 mph speed limit, choose the alternative of Rt. 50.

      Yes, Columbia Pike does back up between LRT and Backlick, but that's due to the terrible design of the Columbia Pike/ LRT/ Ravensworth/ Annandale Rd. intersection, and the resulting long light cycle. Even there, I find the backlog largely clears on each cycle.

      Indeed, I think the worst spot in downtown Annandale is on Backlick Road trying to cross LRT in either direction. The proposed change might help encourage more people to take John Marr (the "Annandale bypass") between Columbia Pike and Backlick or Ravensworth. For years, we've had a commute that required going between Backlick and Columbia Pike, and even if the distance is a little greater, using John Marr is quicker than waiting through multiple cycles at Backlick and LRT.

      All that's just my gut feeling, though. A change like this will require traffic counts and other data, and I wouldn't make a final decision to support or oppose until those numbers are in. There is a science to determining capacity, and we should expect that VDOT can give us a pretty good, data-supported analysis to justify the final recommendation.

    2. For what it's worth, I do tend to agree with Anon 8:24 that on-street parking is not needed on this stretch. Instead, the proposed change would create the possibility of dedicated bike lanes to connect with others being identified in the area.

  2. Yep getting rid of on street parking is a great idea!