Mapping the future of Gainesville

The Interstate 66/U.S. 29 Sector Plan means many different things to different people: a sad ending, a bright vision for the future, a conspiracy by developers and a recipe for traffic gridlock and rampant retail.

Whatever it means to the players involved in its creation, come Aug. 6 — after two-and-a-half years of work — it faces final approval by the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.

The board will hold its public hearing and then likely vote after area residents have had their say.

The Prince William County Planning Commission voted 4-2 in favor of the plan in June.

Gainesville residents, burdened with congested roads caused by through-traffic on U.S. 29, stand in the middle of the controversy. For them, the big question is how traffic will be affected during the plan’s 20 years of implementation.

The answer depends on who you talk to — and goes beyond the sector plan since it is only one of three guides.

For any land use decision in this 3,000-acre sector in and around U.S. 15, U.S. 29 and Interstate 66, the plan’s strategies will be considered in conjunction with existing zoning codes and the county’s 1998 comprehensive land use plan.

The primary solution to the sector’s traffic woes necessitated the sector plan process: The upgrade of the U.S. 29/I-66/Linton Hall Road interchange will displace the gas stations and several small businesses that are in the center of Gainesville.

The construction of this $100 million-plus interchange was delayed until after 2008 by cash-strapped state transportation officials in June.

However, the sector plan needs to go forward on schedule because already planned development cannot be halted, says Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn III, R-Gainesville.

“By right these people can do more than in the sector plan,” Wilbourn said. Without the plan, 1,000 housing units can come in now, he said. “I guarantee you it would be a nightmare out there.”

Whatever form the plan takes, it will have to deal with the influences of traffic in Gainesville, which are:

largely through-traffic. Nearly 60 percent of the 78,000 daily vehicles that travel over the U.S. 29 railroad tracks do not begin or end in Gainesville;

a planned increase in traffic from growth in the sector. Different plans estimate retail space to be between 1.2 million to 2.4 million square feet; 1.1 million to 1.2 million square feet of industrial space and 4,300 to 5,000 housing units by 2020, said county planner John White. Higher estimates based on a “built-out” scenario were dismissed as unrealistic, he said;

an increase in traffic from growth outside the sector. Up to 9,000 housing units can be built north of Gainesville in areas like Heritage Hunt, Piedmont and Dominion Valley, according to county zoning data. Another 9,000 housing units can be built south of the sector area in Lake Manassas and along the Linton Hall Road corridor.

Traffic modeling

A citizens advisory committee, which made recommendations for the sector plan and presented them to the Planning Commission, at first toyed with the idea of keeping U.S. 29 to four lanes. Further research indicated that the highway must be widened to six lanes to keep traffic moving, White said.

County planners conducted a hypothetical road-building exercise that achieved a level of service “D” for Gainesville.

Service level D indicates stable traffic flow up to 80 percent of road capacity, which essentially means motorists may have to wait one cycle of a traffic light at certain times of the day, he said. It is common in Northern Virginia and seen in all parts of the county, he said.

Taken all together, the 34 different road improvements in the model moved traffic but were so far-reaching they were neither desirable nor feasible, he said.

So for the staff-recommended sector plan, which is essentially what was sent to the county board, planners forecast what the usage of the roads could be. They found that three of 15 major roads would be at greater than 96 percent capacity, or level F, and eight roads/intersections would exceed 80 percent capacity, or level E.

According to the model, traffic is forecast to be better if no sector plan is passed under the 1998 comprehensive county land use plan: Two roads/intersections would be at level F and two at least at E.

That analysis was enough for Planning Commissioner Hector Quintana, at large, to vote against the plan. “I can’t in good conscience support a plan whose transportation component is so deficient,” he said.

But supporters of the plan say first that the majority of traffic-controlling factors are outside the sector, and second, the sector plan makes up for those forecasts by mitigating traffic impacts.

“The problems we’re talking about aren’t sector plan problems, they are the problems that have been building up for decades … due to inattention to our surface roads,” Wilbourn said.

To prevent the traffic levels of E and F, the sector plan calls for:

mixed-use developments, which spread out traffic through the day;

providing access to I-66 from U.S. 29 west of the sector, a proposed Gainesville Bypass, a concept that planners have kicked around for years but ultimately depends on Fauquier County; and

commuter lots, transit stops like the Virginia Railway Express, flextime incentives for businesses, and pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly facilities with trails.

A new Parallel Road would allow residents a streetscape away from U.S. 29 with shops to which they could walk or bike, Wilbourn said. This road would connect to an extended Catharpin Road that runs to Va. 55. Local residents would be the main users of these roads, not commuters, and likewise Thoroughfare Road and Haymarket Drive would give choices to local residents, White said.

An alternative route around Haymarket other than Va. 55 is also suggested in the sector plan. Parallel Road could serve that purpose and then become a major thoroughfare, or another route north of I-66 could become the Haymarket Bypass and Parallel Road would be a minor route, White said.

Future county bond referenda or proffered cash payments from developers could pay for these new roads, Wilbourn said.

Spirited debate

The sector plan process has been ugly and bitter at times. The same kind of citizens’ effort that successfully fought off plans by Disney 10 years ago to build an amusement park has decried a process they say is controlled by developers, real estate speculators and Wilbourn, who is constantly fending off allegations that he favors developers at the community’s expense.

Also, Peg Contrucci, the chairwoman of the citizens advisory committee, did not disclose an interest in land designated for a town center by the plan. Her husband, Joe Contrucci, and a partner purchased 60 acres off Va. 55 10 days after the citizens committee approved the sector plan. The land is a portion of 236 acres set for a town center in the sector plan. County prosecutors found she technically complied with state conflict-of-interest laws, but not the spirit of the law.

An alternative plan pushed by citizens surfaced but ultimately failed. The group also circulated a petition asking Wilbourn to resign. The citizens then saw their plan charged as racist because its planned town center would be built over a historically black community.

“Reality has to prevail at some point in time,” Wilbourn said, referring to the amount of office space called for in the alternative citizens’ plan that he said would not be absorbed for 60 to 70 years.

Much of the debate centers around this question of office space versus retail space.

Achieving a balance between the two is not easy.

Before the proposal failed, county staff added teeth to the citizens’ committee plan, which only recommended multiple uses in town center areas. The changes required a mix of uses but offered a phasing compromise: retail can come in during an initial phase with office and residential later.

The Planning Commission raised the maximum build-out density for homes between Carver and Old Carolina roads from 120 to 1,200 in the alternative plan. Planning Commissioner E. Bruce Holley, Neabsco District, called the last-minute switch a “fiasco” and voted against the plan.

A Planning Commission meeting tonight illustrates just one battle within the sector.

Peterson Cos. is asking to rezone the former Atlas Iron Works site, at Va. 55 and U.S. 29, from industrial to business use, which would allow it to develop a Target retail store. County planners say it would generate 40,000 additional daily trips and recommended denial of the rezoning.

At this site, the sector plan calls for a “flexible employment center,” or mostly information technology businesses like an Internet data storage facility or Web hosting services with less than 10 percent retail use. County planners said the mix of use is to offset the large amount of retail in the rest of the sector.

Wilbourn does not agree.

“If you look at that property, it is totally surrounded by [retail]. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to keep it FEC,” he said.

He and others, pointing to the collapse of the telecom industry and cooling demand for data centers, said Atlas could remain at the site for a long time if the plan does not allow for what is needed.

Private input

Another major factor in how Gainesville’s future will shape up cannot be found in government memos or on maps.

The private sector is interested in public/private partnerships to get VRE stations in Gainesville and Haymarket, said Lewis Shadle, U.S. DataPort senior vice president.

U.S. DataPort has an option for development of land in Virginia Gateway business park, owned by Peterson Cos. The two of them — along with LandServices Inc., which owns 128 acres at the intersection of U.S. 15 and I-66 — are helping VRE pay for a feasibility study to extend the VRE Manassas line.

Proposed is a station northeast of Virginia Gateway, with sidewalks or trails to make it walkable to Nissan Pavilion, the business park, and future town centers to the north of U.S. 29.

“You can follow government planning processes, which by no fault of [their own] lag behind … which is why the governments find themselves behind the eight ball when there is too much infrastructure approved for an area,” Shadle said. “At some point, the private sector has to step up to the bar, and that’s what we’re doing here.”

Rail usually only carries around 6 to 8 percent of a corridor’s passengers, so it’s only part of the solution, Wilbourn and Shadle point out.

“I think it’s absolutely possible to create a hub, but creating the hub isn’t going to solve the majority of the problem,” Shadle said.

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