Board of Supervisors approves Embark Richmond Highway

Illustrations of Embark development

(Fairfax County illustrations)

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to approve the Embark Richmond Highway amendment on Tuesday evening, capping a multi-year effort to create a new vision for the future of the Route 1 corridor.

Embark is now officially part of the county’s comprehensive plan, which outlines land use guidelines in the county. The vast changes envisioned in Embark include higher density, mixed-use development in certain areas, a widened Route 1 with three lanes going north and south between the Beltway and Fort Belvoir, bus rapid transit down the middle of the highway, and the extension of the Yellow Line.

The future redevelopment guidelines outlined in Embark revolve around six distinct and interconnected community business centers (CBCs) being built in areas currently dominated by strip mall retail and older, lower density buildings. The CBCs — North Gateway, Penn Daw, Beacon/Groveton, Hybla Valley/Gum Springs, South County and Woodlawn — will feature grids of streets and mixed-use, high-density development featuring taller building heights than currently seen.

The CBCs will be connected by the county’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) system, which will run from the Huntington Metro to North Kings Highway and then down the middle of Route 1 to Fort Belvoir. Embark also calls for the Yellow Line to be extended from Huntington to new stations in the Beacon/Groveton CBC and Hybla Valley/Gum Springs CBC, and other improvements include dedicated bike lanes, more walkable streets, and dedicated green areas.

Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay, who grew up on the highway and has championed Embark throughout its development, called Embark “one of the largest planning and transportation undertakings in the history of Fairfax County.”

“This once-in-a-lifetime plan will transform Route One and ensure we’re upgrading and improving the area’s infrastructure and modes of travel,” McKay said in a statement released after the vote. “This is long overdue and as a lifelong Lee District resident who grew up along the Corridor, I could not be more proud.”

While freezing rain and potentially icy conditions kept away some speakers, the Embark amendment received support from several high-profile speakers during the public meeting portion of the hearing. Holly Dougherty, executive director of the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce, said the initiative had the support of her group, which represents more than 300 small businesses and groups in the area.

We feel these changes … will be a guide for future growth,” Dougherty said, noting that Richmond Highway has been a revitalization zone for 30 years. “We hope that this comprehensive plan amendment will help bolster our economic development efforts.”

While the speakers were overwhelmingly supportive of Embark, many shared concerns about issues such as the undergrounding of utilities and whether there will be enough affordable housing to include lower-income residents of the highway.

Mary Paden, convener of the South County Task Force, noted the City of Alexandria’s loss of affordable housing in the past two decades and hoped that county planners and politicians ensure that does not happen on the highway.

I think that’s the great strength of our area, we don’t want to lose that,” Paden said, noting the diversity in her neighborhood. “We don’t want to get gentrified. My organization doesn’t want that to happen.”

McKay acknowledged that the plan was not perfect, and said some issues — particularly affordable housing — would need to be addressed more in the future. However, he said that financial constraints and time constraints presented by the sheer scope of Embark meant that now was the time to move forward with the initiative.

The number one thing we need is action,” McKay said. “We need to secure the money and we need to get moving.”

More details of the Embark plan can be seen on the county’s website.