Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Falls Church Needs Vision, Not Uncertainty

In viewing the prospects for new development in our Little City, my (somewhat cloudy) crystal ball reveals some good news and some bad.

In the good news department, the Hekemian Project finally is underway after a three year delay and the new Hilton Garden Inn will be underway well before the end of the year. In my view, development begets development, so perhaps we will see more projects begin the approval process soon. This possibility is made more probable by the small upturn in real estate valuations as well as the availability of financing for viable projects with qualified, experienced developers/borrowers.

But perhaps most importantly, the City has a new Planning Director who is experienced in redevelopment of the kind the City wants and needs. Jim Snyder has, in the short time he has been in place, reached out to numerous landowners in an attempt to stimulate new ideas – and new projects. He has teamed with others in City Hall to engender new ideas and approaches to development in the City. Instead of focusing on minor aspects of a given project, he and his staff have instead focused on iterating to “Yes” instead of “No” as we have so often seen in the past. He even has found the time to initiate important changes in our antiquated zoning code. All good news, indeed.

But there’s some bad news as well. As we all know, the US and European economies are struggling, to put it mildly. Uncertainty abounds, a deadly enemy to new commercial development. In Falls Church, we are plagued with two buildings containing tens of thousands of square feet of vacant retail space, a result not so much of the marketplace but of poor planning and poorer execution by the owners. Difficult to overcome, but not impossible. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to bringing new projects to the City, however, is the prevailing feeling that the City’s decisionmakers simply do not want what virtually every other community in the country desperately wants: New mixed use developments that contain significant numbers of residential condominiums/apartments.

Uncertainty abounds, a deadly enemy to new commercial development.

The City’s voters have twice rejected this position during the past decade, but strong opposition prevails none the less. Everyone agrees that they would like to see more quality retail and office space in the City, since those types of development generate much higher net new revenue for the City’s coffers. We also agree that we need better support for the existing businesses in the City. How is that to happen if we don’t significantly increase residential density?

Tearing down existing single family houses and replacing them with oversized McMansions, as currently is permitted by right, is not the answer as everyone knows. The data overwhelmingly support the fact that such single family residences create negative income for the City: They always cost more than they pay. Does that make sense? On the other hand, all of the mixed use projects in the City have attracted precisely the kinds of new citizens we want and need: young professionals and well heeled empty nesters, all of whom have substantial disposable incomes with which to support our restaurants and retail establishments – and do. And, with the single exception of the Pearson Square property (which was permitted to switch from condo to rental), none of the projects have produced significant numbers of school children. The Read Building, for example, has precisely zero. The point here is that without encouragement for such projects, new applications will be few and far between.

So, what needs to be done to foster new development in the City that will help to ensure its long term financial well being, indeed its continued independence? In a single word: vision. The City needs to articulate its vision of what it wants in the way of development – and where. In order to do so, the Planning Commission and staff have an excellent opportunity to present a new vision as it revises the City’s Comprehensive Plan. In addition, key parts of the Zoning Code need to be revised, and quickly.

In order to accomplish these difficult but critical tasks, it is imperative that additional staff be hired, particularly in the Planning Department but elsewhere in City Hall as well. As the finances of the City recover, these are areas that can and should be enhanced. Doing so not only will enhance the visioning referred to above, but will help to speed up the approval process which simply takes too long. It is clear that the Planning Commission as well as other boards and commissions all are willing and able to engage with staff, landowners, developers and the public to vigorously debate what the City wants – and where we want it. Let the debate begin.

Falls Church is a great place to live and work. But we can make our Little City better, and should.

 


Bob Young is the president of Falls Church-based development companies Jefferson One, LLC and The Young Group, Inc.

 

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