While exploring opportunities for economic development, Falls Church Mayor David Tarter told the News-Press this week he believes the City is “up to the challenge” of promoting economic growth to meet an array of interrelated pressures, including the growing needs of its school system. “Ultimately, we can and must continue to support our schools,” he said.
An annual tradition dating back to the founding of the News-Press in the early 1990s, the News-Press this week provided an opportunity to the Mayor of Falls Church, now David Tarter, to reflect on the direction and priorities he sees as the most important in what has become known as the Mayor’s Annual State of the City.
Here are Mayor Tarter’s responses to a number of questions posed by the News-Press designed to get at what he thinks is most important to the City and its residents:
News-Press: What’s it like being the mayor? How is it different than you expected? Are you happy you chose this job?
Tarter: It has been a privilege to serve as mayor these past seven months. I am delighted to be a part of this wonderful community and to play a small role in its future. I had a pretty clear understanding of the level of commitment involved before I began my term, but I certainly have been busy since becoming mayor. I am very fortunate, however, to have great support from my colleagues on City Council, City staff, and from my family.
N-P: What do you think are the most important issues facing the City?
Tarter: The City faces a number of important issues, including maintaining the excellence of our schools, paying for necessary capital improvements and infrastructure, providing needed City services, and keeping taxes reasonable, while preserving and enhancing our community. These issues are interrelated and ultimately depend upon addressing the major challenge I see confronting the City: promoting economic growth.
I believe we are up to the challenge.
Three new grocery stores are under construction, Harris Teeter, Fresh Market, and Good Fortune ,that will more than double the number of supermarkets in the City. These developments are expected to bring in almost 2.5 million dollars in net tax revenue each year. More importantly, these projects will be a catalyst for economic development.
The Hilton Garden Inn and Northgate projects have just opened and together should bring in another million dollars in net new annual tax revenue. An application for an office building at 400 North Washington is under consideration, as is the Mason Row project, which includes a hotel, apartments, condominiums, and retail space.
The City is seeking to manage growth by providing a clearer vision and greater direction to the development community. We just started our fourth Economic Opportunity Area Plan, which will guide the redevelopment of the West Broad Street area. This process will ultimately re-examine the City’s eight commercial nodes with the goal of making them more vibrant, walkable, and economically productive.
Jim Snyder, our Director of Planning, is guiding these efforts; he spent over 33 years planning in Arlington and worked on efforts to revitalize Clarendon, Shirlington, Westover, and other parts of the County. In addition, the recently approved Mobility for all Modes Plan will make the City more pedestrian and bike friendly.
N-P: Do you feel the citizens are sufficiently aware and informed of the big issues facing the City?
Tarter: Falls Church is fortunate to have a highly educated and engaged citizenry. Nevertheless, the City government is conscious of its responsibility to ensure that residents are informed about important issues and have an opportunity to participate in the decision making process. To that end, we are trying new, more informal, ways to get the community involved.
For example, we had a well-attended community walking tour of the Mason Row site earlier this summer, as well as one for the downtown area plan. I hope to make these walking tours a part of our review process. We are hosting a Town Hall Meeting on the Mason Row project on Thursday, September 4, at the Community Center.
Later in September, we are planning a Mason Row presentation for the chairs of boards and commissions to ensure that these bodies are involved earlier in the review process.
The City has also recently updated its website to be more informative and accessible to the public and has begun communicating through Facebook and other social media.
N-P: How would you characterize the City Council? Is it sufficiently collaborative in your view, or is there an ongoing confrontational tone?
Tarter: I am pleased to serve as presiding officer for such a diverse, capable, and involved City Council.
Each member brings a wealth of knowledge and understanding to the table. We are fortunate to have an experienced vice mayor, David Snyder, who has unparalleled regional transportation and public safety expertise. Dan Sze is an architect who understands the built environment and has significant experience with environmental issues. Marybeth Connelly has deep roots in the community and has brought energy and fresh ideas to Council. Karen Oliver offers an international perspective to the City and a careful and disciplined eye to financial, operating, and process issues. Nader Baroukh brings experience, analytical rigor, and keen attention to detail. Phil Duncan has a long history of community involvement and service with an ear for civic engagement.
Our current Council members respect each other and have worked together to reach consensus on important issues, despite the fact that opinions often differ. Working collaboratively does not mean that there will be agreement on every matter. On the contrary, rigorous discourse can be productive, as long as it is respectful and constructive.
N-P: Are local taxes too high now?
Tarter: I would like our property tax rate to be lower. It is approximately 20 to 30 percent higher than our neighbors in Fairfax and Arlington Counties. Combined with rising assessments and the storm water fees, our taxes have a significant impact on our citizens and local businesses.
Our small size and lack of economies of scale present challenges, but we still must strive to keep our tax rate as low as possible.
I believe a renewed emphasis on economic development is the best way to maintain important City services while keeping our taxes reasonable. We continue to make progress on that front.
I am pleased that despite significant pressures, Council was able to keep the tax rate flat this year.
N-P: Describe what you think the City will look like in the next 10 years, or 20 years, or 50 years.
Tarter: I hope that our efforts to plan and provide a clear vision for our community and commercial corridors will pay off. We are in the process of laying the foundation through our Economic Opportunity Area Plans.
While preserving our established residential neighborhoods, this process will lead to a walkable, vibrant and economically successful commercial core, with a more balanced mix of office, hotel, residential, entertainment and open space uses.
Some of this is starting to happen. Approximately one half of the City’s population will be able to walk to the Harris Teeter store currently under construction on West Broad Street. We continue to plan ways to connect our community with more sidewalks, bike lanes and crosswalks. I can envision a day when it will be possible for our residents to meet their daily needs without needing to get into their cars.
N-P: Can the City maintain the excellence of its school system without putting too much pressure on its citizens to pay for it?
Tarter: This is one of the major challenges facing our community.
The City is justifiably proud of its top ranked schools. The Council and the School Board are actively working together to maintain this level of excellence, without overburdening our citizens with high taxes. Ultimately, we can and must continue to support our schools.
The boundary adjustment that resulted from the recent water system sale can help with this endeavor. A Joint Steering Committee composed of Council, School Board, Planning Commission, and EDA representatives is coordinating this effort.
Our middle and high schools sit on 34 acres of this property, located next to the West Falls Church Metro Station. Reconfiguring the schools’ footprint could make up to 10 acres available for commercial redevelopment. A parcel this size next to a Metro station has enormous potential. With proper planning and execution, this land may be used to provide needed new school facilities, while creating vibrant commercial activity that can help pay for it.
N-P: Give your sense of what contributes most in your view to making Falls Church a desirable place to live and raise a family.
Tarter: I was born and raised in Northern Virginia and have lived here essentially my whole life. Falls Church has hands down the best quality of life of anywhere I have lived in the area. The City has a small town feel and a great sense of community that is hard to come by in this day and age. Our schools are excellent and small enough to ensure individual attention not available elsewhere in the region. People are friendly and welcoming. Our government is small and responsive. I think that long term relationships and shared experiences make Falls Church a great place to live.