The Great Recession, as it’s come to be known, set many municipalities off the course to prosperity, and the City of Falls Church was no exception. Across the nation and in The Little City, belts were tightened. From the family checkbook to city, state, and federal budgets, making ends meet became a tougher task.
It’s been five years since the economy entered that devastating decline, and slowly the signs of recovery are becoming more abundant. City of Falls Church Mayor Nader Baroukh said The Little City has “turned the corner” in his annual State of the City interview with the News-Press. The cautious optimism he’s expressed in years past has become more optimistic, and he says that in the coming year citizens will start to see tangible evidence that economic development is underway – not just plans and blueprints, but groundbreakings and openings.
From the Capital Improvement Program to the November referendum on the sale of the City of Falls Church’s water system, and from the sudden wealth of local yogurt shops to how the mayor’s 4-month-old daughter is enjoy her hometown, Baroukh offered his assessment of the City and a look forward in the following interview with the News-Press:
FCNP: Much is moving forward in the City of Falls Church in terms of planned commercial development. What are the biggest projects the City will see in the coming years, and how much revenue does the City expect to gain?
NB: First of all, thank you to the Falls Church News-Press for doing its annual interview again. I always look forward to this, so thanks again. There are a lot of things that are coming to fruition in Falls Church, projects that have been approved or are underway. The big projects that we’re seeing now, the ones that have been approved so far, are Lincoln’s Reserve at Tinner Hill, Rushmark’s 301 W. Broad/Harris Teeter project, the Northgate, the Hilton Garden Inn, and also the Good Fortune grocery store at the Eden Center that just had their groundbreaking. Those are some of the projects we’re seeing underway, and collectively we’re anticipating that they’ll generate a net revenue to the City of over $3 million per year. So that’s very exciting news for the City. A couple of things I find exciting about the projects that we’re seeing is that two of the projects – the Lincoln and the Rushmark – the Lincoln project is going to be featuring a Fresh Market, which is going to be a great anchor for them, and the Rushmark project is going to be featuring a Harris Teeter. These types of projects, upscale grocers, are really transformational. They really transform what’s happening in the area, and attract spin-off commercial activity and investment in the City. So while it’s impossible to predict what we’ll eventually see in that area, it’s possible that we’re going to see more demand for restaurants, cafes, retail, and professional office space for people who want to be near those types of centers of activity.
FCNP: And these have residential components?
NB: Yes, they all do have residential components to them, so they’re all mixed-use projects, at least the ones that I’ve mentioned. The Hilton Garden Inn obviously does not have a residential piece to it, and the Good Fortune grocery store does not either, but the others I listed do have residential components to them. And there are some other exciting projects that are beginning the approval process as well over the coming months. The Planning Commission, the City Council, and the EDA [Economic Development Authority] will be reviewing them as well, and those are mixed-use projects at the northeast corner of Broad and West Streets, and a proposed assisted-living facility at 700 West Broad Street, roughly where the Burger King is. And those will be coming up through the review process, but have not been approved yet.
FCNP: How are citizen concerns regarding traffic, parking, and other residential impacts being taken into account with regard to these developments?
NB: One of the ways we’re looking at the impact is – one thing I’ve been pressing for and other council members have been supportive of is – working to adopt Area Plans. And that’s a large part of figuring out what the City as a whole and in its commercial corridors is going to look like and feel like, and how much density we’re going to have. It’s not exact, but it does provide an outline for planning – which is early on in the planning process. It lays out the groundwork and community members have an opportunity to provide input. So hopefully traffic and density issues can be identified as part of the Area Planning process. We’ve approved some of the areas where we’re hoping to see economic development through this planning process, and more are going to be upcoming as we move forward. My hope is that citizens are going to continue to be engaged in the process. With any development, there are going to be impacts to the City, whether it’s roads, traffic, parking, and other infrastructure, such as the stormwater system. That is why the process of getting community input, and views from our professional staff, and recommendations from our various boards and commissions is so important. Through the input we get from our citizens, staff, and boards and commissions, we do see changes to these projects that make them better. It’s really important that throughout the planning process – even when we’re talking about the Area Plans themselves, which are very conceptual and more of what we desire to have – once we actually see plans come forward for approval, that citizens are engaging throughout the course of that process – including Site Plans as well, which is getting toward the end of the planning process. All those things are very important, and we really encourage citizen input throughout that process.
FCNP: What Capital Improvement plans are on the horizon? Are there projects on the backburner?
NB: I wouldn’t say things are on the backburner, per se, but we are needing to prioritize what projects we’re doing, and in what order. That’s been one of the big focuses for the City Council, is really working on meeting our needs on the Capital Improvements Program. As a community, we’ve had a lot of discussion about it. I think members of the community have oftentimes heard me talk about how we really need to put some restraints on our operating budget so that we can focus in on the capital side as we move forward. We are seeing some projects that are moving forward on the Capital Improvements Program side. The Thomas Jefferson Elementary School expansion and Renovation will be completed this Fall, and in time for the first day of school. It’s on track, and that’s very exciting. And as we’ve talked about before, we did secure some good sources of funding, such as QSCABs [Qualified School Construction Bonds]. We’re also going to see renovation to the 201 Cherry Street property for use as a City preschool facility. And we’re going to be seeing City Hall Public Safety Improvements, and also stormwater improvements to reduce flooding throughout various parts of the City. We’re likely to see a Mount Daniel School expansion – I believe that’s something the School Board and others are going to be discussing and what the options are there. George Mason High School, I think is something we’re going to need to tackle in the near future, and then there are various pedestrian and intermodal improvements that we’re likely to see as well. Also,various roadbed and paving improvements that we’ll see happening in the City. Lots of exciting things, but definitely there’s a focus on the Capital Improvement plan as we move forward.
FCNP: What do City Hall, the Mary Riley Styles Library, City schools, and other civic facilities need to meet growth in population, and stay in good repair and up-to-date?
NB: It’s important to take stock of some history there. The last major public facility investment for the City was way back in 2005, with the Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School. It has been a priority for the City Council to focus on Capital Improvements and reinvestment in our facilities, in order to keep them well maintained and in a condition to serve the community. This has required long-range financial planning, really adhering to those policies with respect to building financial reserves, and keeping operating budgets in check in order to keep resources available for capital projects. The City is in the planning phase for new investment in our schools, and also Mary Riley Styles Library, City Hall, and Public Safety facilities. We can’t do it all at one time, but we need to prioritize based on the greatest needs, and we’ll continue to engage the community in those discussions and determine where those needs are as we move forward.
FCNP: What types of improvements to these facilities can taxpayers expect in the coming years, and at what cost?
NB: Right now, the City’s Capital Improvements Program, calls for approximately $28 million in investment in City facilities over the coming five years. This figure, however, doesn’t include funding for a new high school, which some experts project could cost upward of $100 million. We will be continuing to work with the School Board over the coming months to review the facility plans and work on a long-range financial plan that is feasible, prudent, and meets the community’s needs. This is where some of the challenges are going to lie, is how do we meet the growing student population demands as it relates to the school facilities. We’ve got a great working relationship with our School Board and we’ll be focusing in the upcoming months on how to meet those capital needs on the school side.
FCNP: Are staffing pressures still affecting City Hall? If so, will those be alleviated in the near future?
NB: I think things have stabilized. The City’s workforce was reduced about 14 percent between 2010 and 2012. Government employees everywhere are being asked to do more with fewer resources, and the same is true in Falls Church. In the past year, we have added two positions in the Planning Department, to help manage the Area Planning process and development applications, and I supported funding these positions as a needed investment to continue to grow our tax base. We’re also in the process of hiring staff for the new Stormwater Utility to improve and work on maintenance issues for critical infrastructure, as well as meeting our new water quality requirements for the Chesapeake Bay.
FCNP: What are the greatest budget concerns for the City of Falls Church in the coming year?
NB: The City’s Capital Improvements Program will be a very important part of our budget deliberations again this year. The need for long-range financial planning is stronger than ever. We must maintain our excellent schools and government services, and set aside funds for needed investment in our school, library, and public safety facilities. This is all happening while at the same time, the regional economy continues to face significant challenges as we move forward. In the last few years, we’ve stabilized the City’s financial situation by developing a multi-year financial forecast model, and developing and sticking to a financial plan to alleviate any significant surprises that weren’t manageable, and we’ve been very successful at doing this. We have to continue to do what we’ve been doing. We are continuing to address our capital needs such as storm-water management, school improvements, and government facilities that need improvement as well. We need to keep our focus on capital improvements as we move forward in the budget process this year.
FCNP: Development plans in the City of Falls Church, as well as other municipalities across the nation, were derailed with the onset of the Great Recession in 2008. Do you feel the City is back on track, or does it have some way to go? How does the City then compare to the City now in terms of development and general economic climate?
NB: I think we’ve turned the corner, but there are certainly some regional economic factors that I think we still need to be cautious about. But you’re absolutely right. The Great Recession, as it’s been termed, did disrupt and delay for several years certain progress in the City, but I’m glad to say that Falls Church has rebounded very well. The City currently has a high level of development commitments and interest, at levels that we haven’t seen for many years. So I think we are turning that corner, but again I do think we need to be cautious as we move forward.I do think that there are some very positive signs. For example, both with the approval of the Lincoln and Rushmark projects, and also the Hilton Garden Inn, all these are significant development dollars that will be spent in the City to revitalize those areas. So I’m very optimistic about where we’re headed. Even during the height of the recession the City did see commercial progress. As some of your readers may know, a creative deal was approved to bring BJ’s Wholesale Club to the City, which was the second largest lease signed in the entire Washington region in 2009. Now BJ’s is one of our top tax revenue producers in the City, year in and year out. And during the recession, we also saw the completion of 800 West Broad (or the Flower Building), the expansion of Dominion Jewelers, and the renovation of 105 East Annandale shopping center, just to name a few. During that time, we did see new restaurants and businesses opening, adding new life to the City and continuing to energize the City. Even during the recession, we did see some positive indications. So I think overall, we’ve turned the corner and are continuing to prosper.
FCNP: Speaking of new businesses opening, what are your thoughts on frozen yogurt? We’ve had quite a few of those shops open here recently.
NB: [Laughs] I have to say, my waistline has expanded as a result. I love frozen yogurt. I’m a big fan. I think I’ve tried all of them … several times. Let’s just leave it at that.
FCNP: How are planned transportation projects in the area going to affect the City of Falls Church?
NB: There’s a lot happening in that area as well. Probably the most significant project that we’re seeing is the extension of the Silver Line into Tysons Corner and eventually to Dulles Airport. This will be a huge convenience once the projects are completed for residents of the City, and also businesses. And it will add tremendous value to the City of Falls Church and its location, so I think that’s very exciting. I think that’s probably one of the largest projects that we’ll see happening near the City that will have a direct impact. The City is also a member of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, and will continue to exercise leadership on this regional body to ensure that new transportation funds approved by the General Assembly are used for projects that will benefit the quality of life and economy of the region and also the City. I have to give a big thank-you to Vice Mayor [David] Snyder. He has done a great job of representing the City on a variety of transportation issues.
FCNP: How will the vote, either way, in the November referendum on the sale of the City of Falls Church’s water system to Fairfax County affect the City? What outcome would you like to see as the result of that referendum?
NB: I should say at the outset that the City Council as a body cannot formally advocate for or against a referendum question. But as an individual citizen, I can say that I’m supportive of the sale, and here’s why: I think it’s a fair deal for the City and will put an end to the long-standing conflict between the City, Fairfax County, and Fairfax Water. The boundary adjustments will allow us to control the use of the land for educational purposes or economic development. So here are some details of the sale: The City will be selling the system for approximately $40 million. The City anticipates that roughly $10 million will remain after the City pays off various debt and other obligations. Ultimately we’ll see water rates lowered to the Fairfax Water level within two years, and this will be a savings to City residents. We’ll also see a boundary adjustment that will bring the George Mason and Mary Ellen Henderson campuses into the City. 70 percent will continue to be used for school purposes and 30 percent can be used for any purpose. In addition, City-owned property on Gordon Road will be brought into the City boundary as well. All this amounts to a significant amount of land we will control, and I look forward to the public discussion after the sale on how to best use this land, including for economic redevelopment purposes. If the referendum fails, which was also part of your question, the City will remain in the water business, as it has done so for decades. However, water rates will likely not drop to Fairfax Water level, and the City will not get the proceeds of the sale. The City will also not get the boundary adjustment that I just described.
FCNP: CNN Money recently highlighted the City of Falls Church as a top-earning city and a place “where the jobs are.” To what would you attribute the City’s high rankings in these categories?
NB: The City has a great location, near the nation’s capital, and our reputation for outstanding neighborhoods, schools, and public services are key. Falls Church also has a very high average education attainment level for adults, comparable to any other City or County in the nation. What we’re hearing from employers is that they love being here and are excited by the prospect of new development that will bring in more businesses, housing choices, and walkable amenities for their employees. We certainly aren’t Tysons Corners and, for many employers, especially those of a smaller or medium size, they see that as a good thing. The City’s pace and scale are the right fit for those types of businesses and employers, and they’re not lost in the explosive growth and daunting congestion of larger commercial centers in the region. The City of Falls Church fits a very unique niche for businesses that want to be here, and want to relocate here. That’s why we’re starting to see the level of interest in the City as far as redevelopment goes.
FCNP: That CNN Money report also said “Falls Church maintains its small-town charm while still providing major urban perks.” With large development projects in the works, how does the City plan to maintain that balance?
NB: The City must be vigilant to keep these priorities balanced. It’s definitely a challenge. New projects are carefully and thoroughly vetted for their scale, massing, architecture and design, quality of construction. We also have to be very cautious and cognizant of environmental and traffic impacts, community benefits, and neighborhood impacts that these projects have as well. Major projects are presented to and receive feedback from City boards and commissions, in addition to the City Council, and neighborhood concerns are considered and frequently shape the end results of the project. I do think all of those factors go into creating a good mix. But at the end of the day, we have to be cognizant that only approximately 15 percent of the city’s 2.2 square miles is zoned for commercial or mixed-use development. It’s critical for the City’s sustainability to grow and maintain a healthy and balanced tax base by getting the best result from the limited amount of commercially zoned land we have. The challenge is to do this without overwhelming the City’s infrastructure.
FCNP: How is the City working to still make living affordable for lower-income families and individuals, especially with regard to affordable housing?
NB: That is a tremendous City and regional challenge that we face. Earlier this year, the City Council adopted an affordable housing policy. The policy outlines the City’s strategy to address diverse housing needs of its current and future populations by encouraging and actively supporting a mix of housing types and price levels. In the past year, the City has taken action. For example, the City put into place a First-Time Homebuyer’s program. Using the City’s Affordable Housing Fund, this program allows qualified homebuyers to receive assistance up to 20 percent of the closing costs and down payment. I think that’s a very exciting program that’s been put into place. Also with some of the redevelopment and mixed-use projects like The Reserve at Tinner Hill and the Harris Teeter project, affordable housing units will be included. We’ll continue to work with our regional and non-profit partners, to use various funding source to support emergency rental assistance, housing education, and affordable housing programs.
FCNP: How do you think the City will have changed by this time next year?
NB: I think we’ll continue to see more development interest in the City. I think this is very exciting and I think with the development that will happen and continue to happen in the City, this will allow us to expand our tax base and take some pressure off of our residential property tax. I think by this time next year, we will begin to see some of these projects beginning to take shape in ways that we can see, not just on paper. For example, I think we will see some groundbreaking and those sorts of things happening in the year, and we’ll see some of the completed capital improvement projects I discussed earlier. All of those things will start to come to fruition in ways people can see.
FCNP: Our previous State of the City interviews reflect your – to borrow your phrase – “cautious optimism.” Do you find that as the City moves further from the Great Recession, you’re more optimistic?
NB: I am definitely more optimistic. I’m very pleased with the progress we’ve made to stabilize our financial situation, and we’re making progress on economic development and meeting our capital needs. There’s certainly more work to do as the region continues to face economic pressures, but I think this Council and my colleagues have really done a good job of putting us on track, and I think we’re well positioned for the future at this point.
FCNP: How has one of the City’s youngest citizens, Mia Grace, been enjoying the City of Falls Church?
NB: She is doing wonderful. She loves taking her parents, family, and friends to eat and shop in The Little City! She has also been fascinated with the trees and birds that also make Falls Church their home. She loves living in the Little City!