In a year of immense change for the City of Falls Church, Mayor David Tarter and the City Council have been the commanding force through it all.
In his annual “State of the City” interview with the News-Press last week, Mayor Tarter cited the progress of the last year, as the ground has been broken on its 4.3-acre mixed-use Founders Row development at the corner of Broad and West St. and for the new state-of-the-art high school. The new school’s eventual completion clears the way for the 10-acre Little City Commons development, which received its name and final approval in the spring after going through a series of town hall meetings over the past year. These events were largely set in motion at the ballot box in fall 2017 where voters approved of a $120 million bond to construct the new school as well as renovations to City Hall (now completed) and, still to come, Mary Riley Styles Library.
In his interview, Tarter credited the collaborative and complementary nature of his fellow council members for bringing their vision of Falls Church to life. Dan Sze has been keen on identifying alternative sources of energy, David Snyder has represented the region on transportation issues, Ross Litkenhous has participated in the Live Local effort, Phil Duncan’s work as the chair of the Economic Development Committee, Letty Hardi’s focus on creating a communal downtown atmosphere and Marybeth Connelly’s involvement in affordable housing, are all making an impact in key areas of the City, he said.
All this has given Tarter a cheery outlook on the City. He’s excited about where Falls Church is going in terms of development and how it’s creating robust economic activity in the City. But he’s also aware of preserving the small town sense that makes Falls Church what it is, as well as the potential pitfalls an uneasy national economy could have on the City’s vision.
News-Press: There’s a lot going on developmentally in the City — the construction of a new high school and the Founders Row development along with the Little City Commons entering into the design phase. What has the last year shown you in terms of the cohesion and smoothness the City has been able to progress with these different projects?
Mayor Tarter: The City’s doing a great job because we’ve done a lot of planning. We’ve set the table for high quality development that’s occurring now.
N-P: Is there one box the City Council looks to check at each phase of these projects to make sure it’s tracking in a favorable direction?
T: It’s not just one box; there are many boxes that need to be checked. One thing is to make sure is that the existing community is not adversely impacted by development. Another is asking ourselves, ‘How is this going to make our city better?’ All new development should make our city a better place. Other questions we ask are ‘How does this add to our economic viability? How does this look aesthetically? How does traffic and parking work?’ There are so many things that go into what we on the City Council believe is high quality development. There’s not just one box but many.
N-P: With talks of a potential recession making national news, would that have any kind of effect on the City’s plans if the larger economy were to shrink?
T: It very well might — it depends on how much it could shrink. A big recession is likely to have big impacts, including here in Falls Church. I’m hopeful that we can get through these projects without some major blip, but certainly the national economy affects us here in the City, just like everyone else.
N-P: Todd Hitt’s legal troubles threw a wrench in the planned Broad and Washington St. development in downtown Falls Church. Is that development still on the table as originally planned?
T: [Lead developer] Insight has an approval right now and we would love to see it built as planned. It’s the project we signed off on and we’re still open to going forward with that. But I imagine with the circumstances that have occurred, there may be some desire to change that project. In that case, we would like to hear more about what they would want to do.
N-P: Has Insight given you any indication it wants to pivot away from the project as originally planned?
T: We have already had some discussions about possible changes to the project’s scope, but I’m not at liberty to share them publicly.
N-P: One of the big selling points of Falls Church is it offers the look and feel of a “village.” With the big developments progressing, the image of a village is making way for what is, undeniably, a city. What is the City doing to keep the village vibe that people love so much around and tangible in everyday life?
T: One thing is to make sure we confine our development to commercial corridors. Broad St. and Washington St. are two of the areas where development is going to occur since both roads already serve as major thoroughfares for a million cars any given month. Keeping development to the right places is a good start, but also keeping traffic off the side streets, parking is adequately provided, having the buildings look aesthetically pleasing so that they taper the neighborhoods and have the right uses. All of those things go into protecting the integrity of our existing neighborhoods.
N-P: When we last spoke we were still predicting what kind of effect Amazon’s HQ2 would have if it chose to set down roots in Northern Virginia. With Amazon announcing its decision to come to Crystal City now nine months old, have you been able to see what the ripple effect is of having Amazon end up in Falls Church’s “backyard,” so to speak?
T: I’m not sure the impact has been really felt just yet. I understand there has been some appreciation of property values, particularly in the immediate area where the HQ2 site will be built, but the folks haven’t arrived yet, at least in real numbers. Still, I think the impact is going to be favorable. Having jobs is a good thing, and having high-quality, high-paying jobs in your area is great. I hope that will spawn new businesses and opportunities here in Falls Church, with people either supplying goods or services to Amazon.
N-P: And l know we also spoke about possible educational opportunities that could spring up from having a tech giant so closeby. Has the City Council floated ideas amongst themselves about what a partnership would look like?
T: The [Falls Church City Public Schools] would take the lead on anything regarding an educational partnership with Amazon. And from what I know they’ve had their own discussions about those possibilities. We, as a City Council, are also very interested in working with Amazon and trying to provide as much economic activity as we can here in Falls Church for our residents and for our businesses. But Amazon’s just getting settled now, so I believe there’s plenty more discussions to be had.
N-P: Shifting gears to affordable housing, have there been any constructive steps the City has looked into to address affordable housing options in the short-term?
T: The City is taking active steps to address housing. We’ve just rewritten the chapter on housing in our Comprehensive Plan recently to make greater strides in that area. There are other important things we’re doing in the here and now, including extending the lifespan of affordable housing units in new projects from 30 years to now making them permanent additions to a development. For example, Founders Row and the Little City Commons are going to provide affordable housing units for the life of the project. We also can get cash in lieu of the unit. If we decide there’s a more efficient or effective way to use those resources, such as possibly buying a building or something along those lines, the City has the right to request we can get cash in lieu of the units. We’re certainly considering new possibilities and new ways to make sure the City is inclusive to people of all incomes and races and we’re continuing to work on that.
N-P: Is it hard to cordon off affordable housing from market pressures and keep it available for a certain strata of income earners?
T: If it’s not committed affordable housing — such as a law or regulation that prohibits it from being whatever price the market would determine — then yes, the more demand there is the higher it will cost. The City’s allure is kind of a double-edged sword. Falls Church is a highly desirable place. People want to be a part of this community. But because there’s only so much space here, people will try to outbid one another to land a home in the City, pushing prices up and beyond the reach of others. A solution to this is for the government to intervene in some way, either in new developments or by purchasing existing developments and putting caps and the like on the income for people that can live there. There’s a lot of different ways to skin that cat and we’re making progress, but it’s a long-term solution. It’s not something we can solve in a month’s time, for instance.
N-P: How do you feel the City is tracking in regards to its 2040 vision statement?
T: I’m very optimistic for the City. We received a AAA bond rating for the first time in our city’s history last year. We’re on the cusp of building a brand new, state-of-the-art school which will ensure that our city is at the forefront of education and that our crown jewel — the school system — remains one of the top in the area, if not the country. We’ve got economic development next door to the school which is progressing and will help pay for a large chunk of the school. It will also provide some new, interesting places here in the City for residents to frequent, with a hotel, office space, condominiums and senior housing, so the Little City Commons site is very exciting for our city as well. We’re buying park land, such as our recent closing on the Fellows property and will provide additional open space for people in our community. The downtown park has recently come online, with Letty Hardi and others working to bring new vibrancy to our downtown. There’s a lot of good things happening to the City and I’m very optimistic for the future. Falls Church is a great place with small town feel and small town charm. We’re absolutely on the right track and I’m excited to be a part of that.