Expert panel recommends placemaking initiatives for southern Richmond Highway Corridor

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ULI Washington's Technical Assistance Panel makes its final presentation to the community on Feb. 1 at the WISH in Hybla Valley.

A panel of local land use professionals has identified several locations around the southern Richmond Highway Corridor where visual improvements and community building initiatives could be implemented during the extensive road construction projects later this decade.

The Urban Land Institute (ULI) Washington’s Technical Assistance Panel shared high-level findings and results from its Placemaking Strategy with local government officials and community leaders and members Feb. 1 at the Workforce Innovation Skills Hub following the conclusion of a two-day workshop held in partnership with the Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation (SFDC) and the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Development.

During the workshop, the panel received comprehensive briefings on the section of the corridor between Jeff Todd Way and Lockheed Boulevard, toured the four-mile segment of road, and met with nearly 40 community stakeholders representing local businesses, developers, property managers, county government, civic associations and nonprofits.

Community stakeholders meet with the ULI panelists on Jan. 31. (Credit: ULI Washington/SFDC).

After deliberating on all their input, the panel recommended eight potential locations for placemaking around the corridor: Gum Springs gateway and wetlands, a vacant former 7-Eleven site at 8010 Richmond Highway, the Original Mount Vernon High School, bridges and stream valleys, the Aldi parking lot south of Gum Springs, Mount Vernon Crossroads, the Residences at North Hill and the Gerry Hyland Government Center.

These sites were selected based on six criteria, said panel member Maria Lashinger of Grove Slade, including historical significance, accessibility and adjacencies, marketability, site ownership, and the ability to serve as a gateway and a temporary site for programming.

Panel members went on to discuss some specific placemaking options for three of the sites, including an outdoor entertainment space, trees and additional landscaping at North Hill; a pop-up park in the Aldi parking lot; and a community garden and urban arboretum at the government center.

“There is a severe shortage of green coverage along the corridor,” said panelist Connie Fan of LSG Landscape Architecture. “According to Fairfax County Urban Forestry, the coverage right now is about 17 to 22% along the corridor, while the rest of the county is between 40 to 50%.”

Rendering of a potential urban arboretum at the Gerry Hyland (aka South County) Government Center (Credit: ULI Washington/SFDC)

Besides urging the immediate planting of trees along Richmond Highway, the ULI panel’s recommendations included ensuring that placemaking is informed by neighboring communities, that construction impacts are proactively mitigated and that the placemaking process is effectively managed.

Placemaking, business development and site development were three priorities established by SFDC Executive Director Evan Kaufman when he initially joined the nonprofit organization in 2020.

“Placemaking right now has taken the forefront,” said Kaufman, “and one of the reasons is that placemaking begets business development — if you do good placemaking, businesses come to you. Businesses want to locate where there’s a sense of community and culture and pride … they want to come where they already know where cool exists … Instead of trying to go recruit the largest business, we’re going to recruit the community to help make this place cool, and those businesses will come to us.”

Asked if SFDC would officially manage the placemaking process and whether the Board of Supervisors would fund the projects, Kaufman said that management responsibility “could be shared” and that there are always creative ways to get projects done, citing SFDC’s cooperation with Federal Realty on the parklet at Mount Vernon Plaza as an example.

SFDC and Federal Realty collaborated on the parklet at Mount Vernon Plaza.

As far as funding is concerned, Kaufman said that projects up to around $25,000 in cost, such as murals, could potentially be managed within SFDC’s current budget. Pricier projects are also doable, he added, but “take a little more planning,” like identifying and pursuing grants.

“It’s just about finding money, but it’s a lot easier once you have the vision, the community input, ideas — then you can bring it to people and say, ‘this is where we want to go,’ and then we find how to get there.”

Kaufman told community members that SFDC does not want to be the sole placemaker.

“We want all of you to be the placemakers and then let us help you create your vision,” he said. “Like [the panel] said, this is just to get the creative juices going. They’re not coming up with every project that we’re going to do. We’ve already come up with designs for a big LOVE sign in front of the Original Mount Vernon High School … and some other kind of sculpture garden ideas there.”

Kaufman invited community members to contact him if they’re interested in becoming a placemaker and collaborating with SFDC.

ULI Washington will provide SFDC with a final report from the Technical Assistance Panel in around six to eight weeks and will routinely check in to find out whether its recommendations are being implemented.

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