One thing that everyone involved in the debate over the approval of the new $317 million City Center project in downtown Falls Church should agree on is the need for the project to involve first-rate architectural, landscaping and public art design.
This is Falls Church’s one best shot at making an impression on the region, and it should not squander it. Unfortunately, however, the City is not currently ready to take on this challenge, or even to grasp what should be involved.
Presently, there are only two forces in play: the developer’s own architectural planning and an array of amateurs on the City side. With all due respect, the City cannot count on the developer’s desire to produce a world-class architectural design. It would add to its costs and eat into its profitable densities. On the other hand, the City has no one within its own ranks it can reliably count on to bring the weight of expertise and artistic passion to spearhead a negotiation to ensure the kind of artistically and culturally distinctive center everyone wants.
Right now, the only influence the City is being afforded on the look of the new center will be a yet-to-be-announced public charette, where amateur citizens can participate in a usually-futile effort to delineate a wish list using felt-tipped pens and butcher paper hung on walls. This is a ticket to frustration. If, on the other hand, heaven forbid the citizens in this way were allowed to have the final say, the result could be catastrophic. Falls Church has had earlier, painful experiences of this kind, such as the “citizen committee” approach to selecting the public art for the George Mason Square that led to the choice of the infamous “breadsticks fountain,” which was ugly and quickly fell apart.
No, citizens of the City of Falls Church need to eat their pride and recognize that they most likely do not have within their own ranks the expertise needed to guide this effort. The City needs to retain a truly qualified consultant to guide its efforts on this critical matter.
The look of the new City Center is going to define whether it is a success or not, and will be with the City a long, long time. This is not something that can be ignored or given a short shrift because a few bureaucrats at City Hall aren’t willing to admit they don’t know enough about what such matters should involve. The arts are not their thing.
The City hires consultants constantly to bring expertise to its planning process. It needs to move very swiftly if an architectural and artistic design consultant is to be brought on in time to make a major impact on the City Center project without holding it up.
This is no time for “consensus,” but for expertise. The City is in the enviable position of having a virtually limitless array of possibilities for shaping a distinctive look and character by way of it. The “special place” many in Falls Church are looking for is here already: it IS Falls Church! It only awaits how it will come to look to itself and the world.