Never in the 17-year experience of this newspaper has the fate of the City of Falls Church been more precarious than it is right now. While most folks are going about their holiday business and not paying attention to the affairs of their local government, key leaders at City Hall and in the private sector are working overtime to prevent the complete unraveling of Atlantic Realty’s ambitious City Center plan after the City Council’s latest decision this Monday to delay action until mid-January. Our City Council Hamlet has backed off from taking the plunge, and the result could be a very bloody final scene.
The proposal, the single largest in the City’s history, on 5.2 downtown acres, is critical to the sustainability of Falls Church’s independence as a jurisdiction. It promises, by conservative estimates, to contribute a net $2.8 million annually directly to City coffers through taxes, and considerably more in terms of its drawing power for outside dollars. If it were to go through, it would come in the proverbial nick of time, as the City faces its toughest budget cycle in decades due to the sharp downturn in recent years’ real estate assessment trends.
If the City Center deal falls through, which it could at any minute if distant and indifferent third-party interests run short on patience, it will send Falls Church into a fiscal and political tailspin from which it may not recover. The pressure to cut into the meat of the school system at the same time as raising taxes this spring will make the Council highly vulnerable to electoral challenges in May from protest candidates without any demonstrated commitment to the City’s best interests over the long term. As citizens face cuts in services and higher taxes, they will ask angrily why the current Council squandered an opportunity this month to cash in on the City Center’s $2.8 million a year.
Instability in government, combined with a loss in confidence in the regional development community about getting business done in Falls Church, and a more protracted stall in real estate values as the nation careens toward a recession, will swiftly lead to the City’s insolvency. Cries to save tax dollars by ceding the City to control by Arlington or Fairfax County will result in forfeiting all autonomy and self-determination in decisions on how Falls Church’s 2.2 square miles will be developed. Far from preserving Falls Church’s suburban “village” character, it will open it up to what Arlington or Fairfax will see as an opportunity for massive mixed-use high-rise density, taking advantage of its unique location near I-66, the Metro, Routes 29 and 7 and the Beltway with quick access to two airports, Tysons and the District.
Nothing will bring this scenario to pass faster than calls for delaying action on the current F.C. City Center proposal. Nobody at Monday’s public hearing had to say they were against the idea of a City Center. All they needed to call for was delay, which is as good as death.