‘Stasis Isn’t Possible’

Fredericksburg continues to experience explosive growth. How will the city handle it? What will the city look like in the future? Two members of city council offer their ideas.

The city of Fredericksburg, like the two largest counties that it shares a boundary with – Spotsylvania and Stafford – is facing significant growth challenges. While all three regions feel this, Fredericksburg faces distinctive challenges.

These challenges are hardly new. Like Spotsylvania and Stafford, Fredericksburg has seen rapid growth since the year 2000. But the conflicts in the city seem to lead to sharper battles than in Spotsylvania and Stafford. Witness the recent debates over Accessory Dwelling Units and the more-recent tensions over density.

How does the city leadership plan to deal with the challenges before it? What are the concerns that motivate elected officials? What visions do they have for shaping the future?

FXBG Advance recently sat down with two members of city council to get their take on how they see the city growing in coming years, and the challenges that confront them.

Jason Graham, Ward 1

Term Expires December 31, 2025

FXBG Advance: When you think about the future of the city, what are the things that are front-of-mind for you?

Graham: The immediate issue before this city is housing. We know that this is a problem, and we need to address it – now.

We have to provide housing for people, and there simply aren’t enough options currently. It’s incumbent upon us as a city to come up with reasonable accommodations. If we don’t, issues like homelessness are going to become more acute.

In Ward One, which I represent, I’ve spoken to a number of our citizens and asked a simple question. Could you afford to buy your now if you were to currently be in the market for housing. For many, the answer is “No.” This is particularly worrisome because Ward One is distinctive in the city because it’s the only ward that doesn’t include some part of the historic district.

If the people currently living here couldn’t afford to buy their homes today, then what does that mean for the next generation of homeowners? Are we becoming a city where owning a home in Fredericksburg becomes a birthright, where homes are handed down?

At that point we have become a landed gentry, and that’s not right.

FXBG Advance: Fredericksburg is not alone in facing these types of growing pains – cities across the nation are in the same boat. What is distinctive about the issue of growth as we face it here in Fredericksburg?

Graham: The pressures on our city continue to come from people moving south from the northeast, as has been the case since the late 1990s. The megalopolis is here, it’s happening, and it’s going to continue to happen. That’s because of our proximity to our Nation’s Capital, Virginia’s Capital, and military installations like Quantico.

At the current trajectory, we are looking at a situation whereby the end of the century, Fredericksburg could well be the next major urban hub that emerges along the New York-to-Norfolk corridor, with the substantial population base that comes with that.

The question is, what are we going to do about it?

I want to increase the resiliency of the city along two fronts – housing and transportation – to ensure that Fredericksburg becomes a more attractive place to live, work, and visit.

We do this by making the city accessible to as many people as possible in as many options as possible. And that’s been my driving force – to give people a choice, and doing so in a way that’s minimally disruptive.

To do that, it’s important to understand what attracts people to Fredericksburg in the first place.

A lot of people move here because they like downtown.

Another significant group of people move here for purely economic reasons: availability of work, location, etc. For these people, downtown is nice, but it’s not an integral part of their everyday lives.

As different as these two groups of people are, however, they do share something in common. They’re attracted to the grid system of downtown. This grid system is part of the special sauce that makes Fredericksburg special. The grid system foster community, whereas suburban sprawl is about funneling people on roads to somewhere else.

I’m not saying I don’t love downtown, I do. But the way people in the city who don’t live in the historic district relate to it is different from the way people in Ward One relate to it.

FXBG Advance: The push to create more housing options in the city has produced a strong reaction among some in the community. What are your thoughts on their concerns that increasing housing opportunities will alter the special sauce that makes Fredericksburg so special?

As a city, you’re either growing or dying. Stasis isn’t possible. That just doesn’t exist.

I recognize that some folks are concerned, and I understand why they’re concerned. I just don’t think what we’re doing is going to eradicate the reasons people moved here. It’s not going to destroy the character of Fredericksburg.

The changes we are proposing will allow certain things to occur, but it won’t happen all at once. Rather, these changes are incremental steps toward trying to ensure that we’re not pricing everyone out of the city.

There are no large, whole-sale changes being proposed in the historic district or to established neighborhood.

To be sure, there are going to be growing pains at time – traffic is an obvious one. However, I believe that Fredericksburg’s at an inflection point. And that’s why I talk about resiliency and transportation.

Some people have been very explicit that they don’t want to see anything else built here, period. That’s fine, and I respect that, but I respectfully disagree with it.

Jon Gerlach, Ward Two

Term Expires December 31, 2025

FXBG Advance: When you think about the changes that are shaping Fredericksburg, how do you understand them, and how does that inform your decision-making?

Gerlach:I was born in 1957 in Springfield, Virginia, in a small World War II-era house. There was no beltway. The towns around Washington, D.C., were discrete villages separated by farmland. Today, that has been completely transformed.

The growth that completely changed that area is working its way down I95. My overarching concern is that it could swamp Fredericksburg and destroy what makes Fredericksburg so special. 

We really can’t stop growth. Our challenge is to manage growth so we get the outcomes we want for the city. I have several high priority issues here:

  • Preserving our historic fabric
  • Affordability
  • Where are all these people going to live?

FXBG Advance: Those are tough challenges in a city with limited land to work with. How do you balance preservation and growth?

Gerlach: I think our greatest density should be west of I95 in coming years.Central Park, Celebrate South, those areas will be where most of the high-density development occurs, not in our charming neighborhoods and downtown. Is it going to be easy to redevelop the Central Park area? No, because there are dozens of landowners there right now. It’s not a situation where you just have one big landowner you can work with to make things happen. Increasing density is key to our ability to affordably house the people who are moving to our region, and I believe that most of the high-density growth must occur west of I95. Is that easy, No?  

It’s going to be very challenging. Our Small Area Plan envisions Central Park becoming a more-urban core with high-rise mixed-use buildings with apartments above commercial store fronts. Think in terms of a Rockville Town Center or Reston Town Center being located where Central Park is today. 

What I don’t want to see is that kind of intense development east of I95, because that starts to step on the toes of the city’s historic fabric that is so important for us to maintain.

FXBG Advance: That is an approach that we have heard from others, but there is a development about to get underway in the city – Mary’s Landing – that is the sort of high-density housing east of I95 that alarms many in the city. 

Gerlach: Remember that Mary’s Landing is a by-right project. As it is now, this project’s not going to come before city council. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t some uses the developer may want to add that may have to come before council as a special use permit. 

There are three zoning overlays here: the Creative Maker District, the Area 6 Small Area Plan, and the Form Based Code, which are designed to foster compatible growth while preserving the dozens of buildings identified by the Architectural Review Board (ARB) and City Council as being worthy of preservation. I can’t think of any other place in the city that would involve a by-right residential project of this size east of I95, it’s a one-off.

FXBG Advance: Housing is not your only concern. What other growth challenges do you see on the horizon?

Gerlach: Education is certainly one. If we grow to 40,000 people, as is expected to occur over the next 25 years, we’re going to be building another school and expanding James Monroe High School, and we’ve got to plan for that.

Another challenge is the coming Wastewater Treatment Plant upgrade, the most expensive capital improvement project in the history of the city, that will increase the amount of water we can treat daily from 4.5 million to 6 million gallons, which will be able to sustain a population of 40,000 souls. This project is an example of planning for that future growth.

My core value is managing growth without killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

FXBG Advance: You’ve been properly credited for developing the expression “special sauce” to describe what makes Fredericksburg what it is. How do you understand that expression?

Gerlach: How one understands that expression is a very subjective thing, so everyone will have their own opinion on why they like Fredericksburg. Mine is the city’s historical significance, its beauty, and the unspoiled river running through it.

And then there are the people. They’re really special.

I’ve lived all over the USA and internationally too, in big cities, small towns, a golf course resort, even a tent in the desert, I’ve never found a place quite like Fredericksburg.

People are kind to each other. People are open to new things and being around other people of diverse values. It’s a very welcoming place. To me, these are ingredients in the “special sauce.” Everyone’s going to have their own views of what makes Fredericksburg great, like I said, it’s subjective. I’m interested in learning what people like, and don’t like. I’m not making decisions on Council for myself, but for the community.

FXBG Advance: It’s no surprise that all this talk of density and growth and change has elevated tensions at times. How do you see the situation on the ground and from the dais?

To be sure, our city runs the spectrum in terms of people and the way they feel about the city. There are those on one extreme – not many – who don’t want change, and those on the other extreme again, not many – who are willing to accept whatever comes. 

Across the spectrum, almost all of these people have a great deal of pride in the city. 

They also have strongly held beliefs, which is good, because we want to hear all these different viewpoints. If we all believed the same way, what an awful world we would live in. 

Once you’re exposed to that spectrum, you realize that the decisions you make are going to affect all of these people. So I’m glad they’re vocal and have strong opinions. As we as a council sort through ideas, hopefully we’ll arrive at solutions that advance the city’s goals, in ways that most people across the spectrum are comfortable with.

by Martin Davis