Trail Feature:
A Pedestrian-Friendly
Springfield Business Area

 
  Article Prepared By Robert Michie
Sidewalk and Trails Committee, Lee District
Last Reviewed: May 22 2006
Revision 1.1
 
 

Summary:

In May 2006, I was invited to participate in an event called Connections Springfield. This panel focused on issues surrounding automobiles, mass transit and pedestrians. The object is to create urban design concepts which foster public gathering places and places for people to connect; and to provide financial, economic analysis, and implementation strategies needed to effectuate connections among the various places of Springfield.

The accompanying documents showed that a major concern is the potential to redevelop two large tracts of land that will be available in the next few years: the U.S. Army Fort Belvoir Engineering Proving Ground, and the General Services Warehouse Complex, both south of Route 644 (Old Keane Mill Road/Franconia Road).

As a sidewalks and trails person, I am interested in moving people when they are out of their cars, and if possible, encouraging persons not to use their cars in the first place. My conclusion is that building attractive gathering places and streetscapes is easy, but getting people to walk to them is going to be tough.

[ Springfield Connection Study Area ]
Exhibit 1: Map of Subject Area

Discussion:

Exhibit 1 is an aerial photograph of the Connections Springfield Study Area. It is divided into four quadrants:

bulletThe Northwest Quadrant (Area 1) is the Springfield Commercial Revitalization District. It is the home of Springfield Plaza Shopping Center, office buildings, several strip malls, hotels and small businesses.
bulletThe Northeast Quadrant (Area 2) is dominated by Springfield Mall and the Franconia-Springfield Transportation Center. It also has a number of office buildings, strip malls, a new hotel and a new conference and reception center.
bulletThe Southeast Quadrant (Area 3) is occupied by the GSA Warehouse Complex. Further south (and out of the photograph's area) is a small industrial park.
bulletThe Southwest Quadrant (Area 4) has the U.S. Army Fort Belvoir Engineering Proving Ground, an 800-acre tract that is slated by the Base Area Realignment Committee for redevelopment. Part of the land will be turned over to Fairfax County for commercial redevelopment, although an undetermined amount of land will be reserved for new federal government and military initiatives.

There are only three major traverses in the area that can be used by pedestrians and bicyclists. These paths are labeled in Exhibit 1 as A, B. and C:

bulletTraverse A provides both north-south and east west communication between the Springfield Commercial Revitalization Area in Area 1 to Springfield Mall in Area 2. Good sidewalks are present, but no bike lanes are provided. It is also a long traverse. Walking from Springfield Mall in Area 2 to the center of the Revitalization District (The Veterans Bridge at Amherst Avenue and Route 644) takes a half-hour.
bulletTraverse B provides a north-south route over the principal automobile barrier in the area: Route 644 (also known as Old Keene Mill Road on the west of I-95, and Franconia Road on the east side of I-95). As you can see, Traverse B provides an effective link for all four quadrants of the Study Area.
bulletTraverse C starts in Area 3 at the Franconia-Springfield Metro Station, and provides a walking path to the Engineer Proving Ground in Area 4. Part of the traverse is sidewalk, and part of it is asphalt trail. Its principal feature is a pedestrian bridge in the area of the GSA Warehouse Complex  that crosses both I-95 and Backlick Road. This is a very long traverse: it takes 45 minutes to walk from Franconia-Springfield Transportation Center to the Engineer Proving Ground.

Field Check  20 May 2006:

Photo 1: Traverse A: Commerce Street Bridge, Looking east. The left side of the road has a salon, a hotel, an Islamic academy, and the Springfield Interchange Project Office. The right side of the road has another hotel, and a conference center. Therefore, in 4/10 of a mile, passersbys pass by just six businesses. [ Commerce Street Bridge, Looking east ]
Photo 2: A common problem with sidewalks in the vicinity of public structures or in areas where business density is light is that the sidewalks get dirty. The sand you see is the remains of winter salting operations. This sand can be slippery under bicycle tires and is quite unpleasant when it is wet. [ A Dirty Sidewalk on Commerce Street ]
Photo 3: When Good Ideas Go Bad. This is a street scene on Traverse B, Amherst Avenue. The object was to dress up the street with tree plantings and ornamental lampposts. Unfortunately, everything intrudes into the walking area. The result is a slalom run for pedestrians that forces single-file traffic on the sidewalk. [ A Slalom Run for Pedestrians ]
Photo 4: Traverse C, the Walking Path from Franconia-Springfield Transportation Center to the Engineer Proving Ground on Backlick Road. Here is the good news: a very nice meadow just south of the Franconia-Springfield Parkway. It is full of critters like deer, woodchucks, beavers, and birds. It attracts people who like to come and enjoy the nature show. [ An Urban Meadow ]
Photo 5: Here is the bad news about Traverse C: a large part of it is isolated and can be scary at night for solitary users. A close look at Photo 4 reveals special floodlights to illuminate the path, but those lights do not shine everywhere, such as in this area just to the west of the meadow. [ Isolated and Dark Path to the Metro Station ]

Recommendation:

Building gathering places and walking paths in the Springfield area is going to be difficult for a number of reasons. The principal reason is space: walking and gathering is encouraged when distances are short. The City of Alexandria understands this, and you can see it in the design of the Patent and Trademark Center in the redeveloped East End. Work, shopping, transportation, entertainment, and residential usage all exist in an area that can be traversed in a 20-minute walk. Arlington County did a spectacular job on Wilson Boulevard, particularly in the Ballston area. Crystal City is getting the same type of makeover now.

Land use in Springfield, however is characterized by long business frontages. Just head south on Amherst Avenue, for example, and see how long it takes you to walk past the Kay Jennings automobile dealership. As shown in Photo 1, a half-mile hike from Springfield Mall to the corner of Commerce Avenue and Brandon Street takes you by only six businesses. No matter how beautiful the streetscape is, people will enjoy it only from their car seat. You have to give people a reason to walk, and the reason usually is to enjoy the variety of the things they pass.

First Principle: Get People in the Area

The entire area is surrounded by residential development, but most of it is low-density single-family homes. There really isn't enough population around Springfield to support an urban landscape as that you find in Arlington or Alexandria.

 
bulletShort Term: Build high-density parking structures in the Northwest Quadrant (Area 1).
bulletLong Term: Set aside some land for high-density residential, such as condominium towers.

Second Principle: Give People Something to Do

The genius of Ballston and Crystal City is that there are lots of things to do there throughout the week and the weekend. These areas are employment centers, recreation centers, boutique shopping centers, and entertainment centers. The best planning thing that was done was to keep the "big-box" shopping areas in Potomac Yards on Route 1 while encouraging specialty stores to share space everywhere else. The result is that people park their cards and walk. The dining and gathering spaces encourage longer visits, and makes Ballston and Crystal City leisure time destinations.

bulletLess is More. A lot of small shopping and dining opportunities in a confined area discourages automobile movement and encourages walking. Long business frontages encourage people to drive to the next destination, and sucks people out of the area.
bulletPlan for a ten-minute traverse. From wherever the car is parked, the planned destination area should be no more than a ten minute walk away.

Third Principle: Wider Sidewalks Encourage Walking

Photo 3 shows a streetscape run amuck. What started as a double-width sidewalk (one that allows people to pass each other shoulder-to-shoulder) turned into a chicane as designers added streetlamps and plantings. Sidewalks can do a couple of things for you, but they have to be wide ... about eight to twelve feet wide.

bulletUse sidewalks as part of a traffic calming plan. Plantings next to the street cause drivers to relax, too.
bulletMake the sidewalks wide. It may cause smaller parking spaces, but that is why the First Principle calls for high-density parking structures. Parking near a store should be limited to taxis, passenger load and drop-off, and package pickup.
bulletAny trail or sidewalk has to feel safe. Pedestrians must be able to see through or over plantings. Illumination must be moderated, but there should be no dead spots in the pedestrian's line of sight.

Fourth Principle: Keep Up Maintenance

bulletPhoto 2 shows a really dirty sidewalk. Sidewalks and adjacent areas need to be swept, washed, weeded, mowed, and repaired regularly. Failing to do so will only put people back in their cars.
bulletRespond to citizen complains about malfunctioning signals, burnt-out lights, and graffiti immediately.
bulletHave a debris management plan that includes not only pedestrian-generated trash but automobile jetsam such as hubcaps, tailpipes, and broken glass.

 

 
 

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