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Consultants Tout Region’s Opportunities as F.C. Council Mulls Growth Options

Regional Boom Contrasts to F.C. Fiscal Pressures

Two major presentations to the Falls Church City Council, as it met in its annual retreat last weekend, reminded the Council of the powerful economic development potential of the City as a jurisdiction ideally located in the center of one of the most robust economic growth corridors of the nation.

Regional Boom Contrasts to F.C. Fiscal Pressures

Two major presentations to the Falls Church City Council, as it met in its annual retreat last weekend, reminded the Council of the powerful economic development potential of the City as a jurisdiction ideally located in the center of one of the most robust economic growth corridors of the nation.

The briefings presented a bright outlook that contrasted sharply to the F.C. City’s “Financial Overview” report of prospects for the City budget over the next five years. In the report presented by City Manager Wyatt Shields, a steep decline in commercial real estate assessments, in particular, and flat residential value growth, along with little or no new development, were premises for the gloom.

However, news last week that the greatest recession since World War II has been declared officially over was the context for a presentations by John McClain, a senior fellow at the Center for Regional Analysis of George Mason University, and former Arlington County planner Jim Snyder.

They both suggested that, with sufficient motivation, innovation and creativity, the City could gain enormously from the boom occurring just beyond its borders.

It was McClain, a long-time resident of Northern Virginia, who authored the “Big Picture Study” commissioned by the F.C. Council in 2005 that was presented by the Center’s director Dr. Steven Fuller at that time.

In that study, McClain indicated the region immediately around Falls Church compose of about 100,000 people in five zip codes has $4 billion in annual discretionary spending that the City can take advantage of through marketing and development efforts.

While noting the unhappy times with the economy that came since that study, some things have continued to move forward in the region, including the impact of federal stimulus dollars in escalating the development of Tysons Corner, Merrifield and the first phase of the Metro “Rail to Dulles” project. These will not only keep the region at the forefront of economic growth nationally, but will also bring new commercial vitality and tens of thousands of new residents in the coming years.
McClain stressed to the City Council how the location of the City, between major retail centers like Tysons, Merrifield, Ballston and Bailey’s Crossroads, gives it a unique potential for growth.
A second presentation was made by Jim Snyder, a retired chief planner for Arlington County who was a major player in the development of the Ballston-Rosslyn Corridor.

Snyder called Falls Church’s location a “sweet spot” for growth in the region, and noted the City’s major existing commercially-zoned areas around Seven Corners and the West End, in particular, offer major potential for the City, while currently woefully under-performing.

Using the measure of “floor-to-area ratios” (FAR), the ratio of utilizable office or retail square footage to overall land square footage, he noted that the East End or Seven Corners area inside the City limits is 76 acres with a total taxable value of $258 million that currently has an FAR of 0.3. By contrast, in Arlington, the FAR in Rosslyn will be going as high at 10.0, with Ballston at 6.5 and Clarendon going to 5.0.
He noted the proximity of those 76 acres to the East Falls Church Metro station, where a special shuttle service could bring people in large numbers to the area. “You are bracketed by two Metro stations with your name on them,” he told the Council. “You should claim them. Even though they’re technically not in the City, no one outside knows that, so you use them as marketing tools for Falls Church.”
He said that if the 76 acres on the East End were redeveloped with an FAR of 3.0, that would represent a 10-fold increase over their current taxable value to the City, from $258 million to $2.58 billion, and development there would have very little impact on residential parts of the City. The key will be the effectiveness of the City’s leadership in assisting the consolidation of parcels and zoning resets required to make it happen.
Again citing the Ballston-Rosslyn Corridor, he said that area once looked like Falls Church’s East End, and that the transformation did not come overnight. But, still, it came because it was planned for, and a concerted effort was made to bring it into being over a 20 year period.

The Council’s 11-hour Friday night and Saturday daytime retreat in the library of the Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School included participation by members of the School Board, Planning Commission and Economic Development Authority.

Tempers flared over the issue of the role of the Council’s committee on economic development, and its meetings with Akridge officials seeking to build their “Gateway” mixed use project on N. Washington St.

The spat involved the degree to which the Council members composing that committee could see themselves actually negotiating with Akridge, or not. Vice Mayor David Snyder was in favor of a tacit negotiating role, and former Mayor Robin Gardner most adamant in opposition. It was resolved that all negotiations will remain in the hands of City Manager Shields, and that the Council will offer suggestions and advice only, until the negotiations are complete and a former proposal comes forward seeking Council approval.

A “draft work plan” will be the discussion at next Monday’s Council work session, and on Nov. 1, the Council and School Board will meet in a joint session to kick off the next fiscal year’s budget process.

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