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Commercial Density ‘Is Your Friend,’ GMU Expert Tells F.C. Visionaries

OVER 50 Falls Church citizens showed up at the historic Falls Church Episcopal last Saturday morning for a “visioning” discussion on what Falls Church should be like in 2040. (Photo: News-Press)
OVER 50 Falls Church citizens showed up at the historic Falls Church Episcopal last Saturday morning for a “visioning” discussion on what Falls Church should be like in 2040. (Photo: News-Press)

In the face of the regional headwinds of a softening economy not likely to take off anytime soon, Falls Church leaders should focus on growing its private commercial sector by recognizing, for starters, that “intelligent density is your friend.”

This was the advice provided by Bob Wolfe of the George Mason University’s Office of Real Estate Development to last Saturday morning’s “visioning conference” hosted by the City of Falls Church at the fellowship hall of the historic Falls Church Episcopal.

More than 50 persons, including many “new faces,” were in attendance Saturday who were not part of the City’s staff or members of its boards and commissions, City Manager Wyatt Shields reported. The idea was to share thoughts on what kind of city citizens would like Falls Church to be like in 2040, but most of the discussion was on how to move the city forward most effectively.

On that point, Wolfe was unapologetically straightforward. “You need to increase your commercial tax base to relieve pressures on your real estate taxes, and your need for a new high school is a unique selling point for doing this,” he said.

Achieving this required embracing density in the commercially-zoned areas, including “floor to area ratios” (FARs) of 3.0 to upwards of 4 to 5, he said (FARs in commercial zones average 0.5 for unimproved sites right now—ed).

FARs refer to the ratio of square feet of utilizable commercial development to the total size of the property. Higher FARs are most commonly achieved by construction of multi-story buildings.

“You have to be proactive to encourage density,” Wolfe said. “The public will not notice the difference between a 3 versus a 4 or 5 FAR,” he insisted. “Density won’t hurt you. You want it to stack up around the West and East Falls Church Metro stations. That’s where the Millennials want it.”

(Although both the Metro stations are technically outside the City limits, in the case of the West Falls Church station, the campus land ceded to the City by Fairfax County as part of the deal to sell the F.C. water system comes very close, to within easy walking distance of it).

Attracting younger Millennials to the City is another important component for stimulating new commercial development, he said, noting that in the meeting that morning, there were no Millennials, but only Baby Boomers, in attendance, with the exception of City Hall staffers. While Millennials are pushing age 40, Baby Boomers are pushing 60.

The challenge of a stagnating regional economy is what Falls Church needs to meet, Wolfe said. “The Golden Age of the D.C. area economy from 1980 to 2010 provided for the strongest regional economy in the U.S. driven by government contracting,” he said. “This was an incredible company town.”
But with the Congressional sequestration policy, 40,000 jobs have been lost. The government-driven economy is still huge, but it won’t grow going forward, which is why expansion must be in the private sector, which for Falls Church would include personal health care and cybersecurity.

“You have to nurture your advantages,” Wolfe advised, which include proximity to Metro stations and a central location amid a lot of health facilities and hospitals, as well as a highly-educated and well-heeled population.

He said that Falls Church “is special, but not that special,” adding there are 20 other sub-markets in the D.C. Metro area similar to Falls Church’s. “It’s time for you to deal with realities and not hallucinations about realities. There is no steady state, you are either growing your economy, or it is declining.”

Other presentations to the assembled included Roger Lewis of the University of Maryland and formerly of the Washington Post, who called for a more proactive approach to shaping the character of the City than mere zoning reforms.

He hailed the “great tree coverage” that Falls Church has and cited the W&OD Bridge over W. Broad St. as an example of “good design.” Streets and walkability are “key” in the public realm, with a lot of ground floor perosity, pedestrian orientation, food and dining options and cultural and recreational opportunities.

He said involving more “stakeholders” is key to fending off “Clamp” groups (“Citizens lobbies against most projects”).

Ken Billingsley, director of Demographics for the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, said the region is on the “leading edge” of the transition since the late 20th century to “the next American society,” that is defined by key trends, including population growth, a changing racial and ethnic profile (40 percent of youth in the region now come from homes with one or more foreign-born parents), an aging population and a robust “creative capital” reservoir.

On the latter point, Falls Church’s well educated and well heeled population gives it “some of the strongest attributes of the region, although there are proportionately fewer young adults and more older “baby boomers” in its demographic makeup.

Falls Church is at the top in education and top in household income over 3,144 other American city-county jurisdictions, he noted. He cited Richard Florida that the centers of knowledge and ideas linked to energy production that will be the “biggest winners” in the emerging economy.

“Don’t predict the future, invest in it,” Billingsley concluded.

Erik Pelton, vice chair of the Falls Church Economic Development Authority announced that Falls Church’s “Little City” logo has been invited to participate in the October National Trademark Expo.

He provided data about Falls Church’s current situation, noting that only 21 percent of its taxes come from commercial uses, the lowest percentage in the region, although the office vacancy rate is better than the overall region. Right now, there are 165 medical use offices, and 95 restaurants in the City, while 15 percent of the City’s 1,400 acres (2.2 square miles) is zoned commercial.

More “visioning” opportunities will be provided before they’re applied to an update of the City’s Comprehensive Plan early next year, Shields told the City Council’s work session this week.

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