Local Commentary

Editorial: Attaining 2.5 FARs For Falls Church

Falls Church City Councilman Ira Kaylin said it most succinctly at this Monday’s Council work session. Paraphrasing his exact quote, when it comes to economic development, including higher densities in commercially-zoned regions of the City, Kaylin noted that neighbors in nearby residential areas need to realize that “they can’t have their cake and eat it, too.”
In other words, as he put it, citizens can’t demand low-density development and low taxes at the same time.

The comment came amidst a heated Council discussion in response to new City Planning Director Jim Snyder’s presentation of optimum potential use of eight “sectors” in the long and narrow commercially-zoned segments of tiny Falls Church, all astride two major thoroughfares, Broad Street (Route 7) and Washington Street (Route 29).

The problem for Falls Church, as Snyder pointed out, lies in the fact that in seven of those eight sectors, the “floor to area” (FAR) ratio, a measure of density that translates directly into economic yield and contributions to the City’s tax base, is woefully below par, being almost non-existent, in fact.

The FAR is below 0.5 in all of them, actually most being closer to 0.3, and the only one higher than that is at 0.9 in the short stretch of W. Broad St. where some new mixed use projects (the Spectrum, the Byron, the Broadway) have gone in over the last decade.

By contrast to those numbers, Snyder pointed out, an optimum FAR, a standard goal for modest development for most jurisdictions, is 2.5. It’s not unusual for it to rise above 4.0 for mid-level development districts, and he said that the FARs on the specific properties of the Byron, the Broadway and the Spectrum are over 3.0.

However, attaining an average 2.5 FAR for all the eight “sectors” of Falls Church’s commercial corridors would involve a veritable development boom, and a look quite different for those areas than what we see now. (As happened over the last decade: Recall that just 10 years ago, the 400 and 500 blocks of W. Broad, where the Byron, Broadway and Spectrum now sit, consisted of an open field, an unimproved asphalt parking lot, an eyesore old former art supply store unoccupied the entire previous decade, and a single-level seafood restaurant swimming in a sea of usually empty parking spaces).

Now comes Jim Snyder, who is the brightest new hope on the Falls Church economic development horizon since the days of the colorful David Holmes in the late 1990s, the big man who turned the town on its head in a matter of months, jarring it free from years and years of inaction to begin a serious development process that continued long after his short tenure here until idled by the Great Recession in ’08.

Some on the Council recoiled at Snyder’s talk of needing much higher FARs. They worried about the reaction from the residential neighbors, which provided the context for Councilman Kaylin’s timely remarks.

 

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