Few question the need to increase Falls Church City’s revenue, but there is little consensus on how to do so. Should Spectrum’s Mason Row be approved? Should the City wait to see the impact of the properties currently under construction first? Should the City weigh all of the new development options on the horizon together and select the best options? Why can’t the new development projects be all commercial and smaller in scale?
Everyone – residents, business owners, decision makers – all seem to agree that what Falls Church needs is “smart growth.” Unfortunately, there seem to be a number of interpretations of what smart growth actually means. According to Smart Growth America, “Smart growth means building urban, suburban and rural communities with housing and transportation choices near jobs, shops and schools. This approach supports local economies and protects the environment.” Further, “smart growth creates neighborhoods with schools and shops nearby and low-cost ways to get around for all our citizens.” On the surface, it would seem that all of the projects under construction and consideration fall into the “smart growth” category. But what is missing from the above definition, is the desire for Falls Church to retain its unique nature and sense of community.
In addition to its exemplary schools and fascinating history, Falls Church is known for its small independently owned businesses. The commercial areas are quirky to be sure, but many are also run down and in need of facelifts, if not redevelopment. How are residents, business owners, City staff, board and commissions and City Council members to decide what is best for our Little City? Weighing the pros and cons is a start.
New mixed use development…
• Generates significant tax revenue for the City. According to a recent report by the City’s EDO, on a per acre basis, mixed use development generates 18 times the tax revenue produced by the properties prior to redevelopment.
• Contributes significantly to the City’s public schools capital needs. Current mixed use projects have generated more than $6,481,540 toward the schools capital needs.
• Brings new residents who are also potential customers to our locally independent businesses, thereby helping them succeed and, if need be, relocate to new space.
• Attracts new businesses to the City…new businesses like Mad Fox Brewing Company, Pizzeria Orso, Vantage Fitness, Plaka Grill and ArtSpace Falls Church.
• Tends to be greener and is LEED certified.
• Makes the City more walkable and bikeable while also adding amenities to support such activities as bike racks and in the case of Mason Row, BikeShare.
• Is often more aesthetically attractive than older structures.
• Displaces beloved businesses. This was certainly the case with Anthony’s and potentially with some of my favorite businesses that are located in the area where Mason Row would be built. Thankfully, because they have all had ample notice, most have plans or are planning to relocate in the City if the project is approved. Sadly, there is no space in the City to relocate City Sunoco but thankfully, its owner owns and operates Pimmit Hills Sunoco behind the Trader Joes on Leesburg Pike so their excellent service will still be available.
• Are usually somewhat taller and can overshadow residences and older commercial structures. Mixed use, however, is what banks are financing and what developers are building. The option to build 100 percent commercial or lower density projects is extremely challenging as land and construction costs do not make them profitable.
• Add to existing traffic. There is no doubt traffic is getting more congested but a more walkable community could ease at least the local traffic. But then, too, the volume of vehicles that simply pass through the City on a regular basis is also constantly increasing and we must still deal with that impact.
• May cause an increase in the crime rate.
• Changes the unique appearance of Falls Church.
Development cycles rise and fall. If these projects are not approved, will development in the near future be jeopardized? Will Falls Church once again miss an opportunity? Is that a good thing? Will real estate taxes have to go up to replace those revenues as City and school expenses increase? Will higher real estate taxes drive out seniors and others who may prefer the lower real estate tax rates of one of our neighboring jurisdictions?
The Falls Church Chamber of Commerce has not yet officially reviewed or weighed in on Mason Row’s most recent submission. While the Chamber typically supports projects that bring customers to the business community and increase and diversify the City’s tax base, the organization will weigh the pros and cons and provide feedback it believes is in the best interests of all of our local businesses and the community at large.
Sally D. Cole is the executive director of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce.