Blog posts are the personal views of Letty Hardi and not official statements or records on behalf of the Falls Church City Council
As the final post before Election Day, I wanted to take the opportunity to do 3 things:
(1) THANK YOU
Thank you for the conversations I’ve had at the doors, campaign events, forums, office hours, and more. Listening to a broad constituency continues to be important to me, and there are a variety of topics on everyone’s minds. One thing is clear: we have much to be grateful for, much opportunity ahead, and together, much responsibility to the future. I hope you have heard a positive vision from me for a Falls Church that is more inclusive, vibrant, and sustainable so that we leave the city even better for future generations. I hope I’ve earned your vote with my continued commitment to be a transparent, pragmatic voice on City Council where community engagement has been central to how I’ve served.
(2) HOW TO HELP
I’ve fielded many “how can I help?” offers. I remain committed to being a people-powered candidate and am grateful for broad support with over 80+ individual donors across the city and many repeat and new supporters each cycle. Since 2019, I’ve also stuck with my commitment to not accept donations over $100 to ensure that our elections remain accessible. (I’ve received a handful of generous contributions above $100 – those funds have been donated to local non-profits.)
Of course, contributions are still gratefully accepted but word of mouth endorsements and volunteer time are the most helpful in this home stretch. Commit to telling at least 5 friends and neighbors to vote and/or reply to me and I’ll put you to work, even for just an hour or two. This weekend, you may see #teamletty volunteers out in force with a final GOTV (get out the vote) push and we’d love to have you join in.
(3) FINAL FAQs
Finally, in Letty-fashion, I also want to take the opportunity to offer a final round of information to make sure you’re informed before heading to the polls. I’ve written a number of these FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) posts – I believe this is the 7th edition! I’ve learned so much over the years, so I’m sharing the top FAQs I’ve heard on the campaign trail with links to previous posts where I’ve written about these topics before. With such a smart and engaged community, I believe that if we can start from the same base of accurate information, it’s far easier to find common ground and move forward together – which has been the premise of my blog for 8 years.
If you have FAQs, I’m happy to add them or save for the next edition.
I’m also providing a final round up of candidate information so I hope both will be helpful.
If you haven’t voted already, I’ll see you at the polls on Tuesday!
(1) Traffic – traffic is terrible, won’t more people and development only make it worse?
This might be the top FAQ by a longshot this year.
With construction and critical stormwater/sewer/bridge/other infrastructure projects underway, I know it is messy out there and lane closures and detours are aggravating. The good news is that construction is temporary and many projects have wrapped up, like the pipebursting on S. West and the Oak St. bridge reconstruction.
What about development projects? Mixed used development in the city began around 2004 and our population has grown almost 19% between the 2010 and 2020 census – so if there is a cause and effect or a correlation relationship between development/population and traffic, the traffic data over that time period should be very telling. See my February 2022 post: the reality is that VDOT data has shown that population growth *has not* resulted in more car volumes, contrary to popular belief. Note the analysis used data up to 2019 (to avoid including pandemic-related drops in travel across the board). The most recent available data (2021) was also analyzed and volumes are still well below the pre-pandemic levels (2019) and well below the time before the commercial corridor redevelopment took off (2007) and how much our population has grown since then.
As a personal experiment – when I’m on foot stopped at an intersection, I look at the cars passing by and see how many of them have the Falls Church green car decal. I have found that usually only every 1 of 7 to 1 of 10 cars have city decals depending on the day and time. See my October 2020 post about the Broad and Washington (Whole Foods) project and its traffic study. Pre-COVID, Rt 7 saw 25,000 vehicles per day and Rt 29 saw 21,000 vehicles per day. With 15,000 residents in Falls Church, our residents and visitors represent a tiny drop in the bucket compared to large volume of regional cars driving on our streets already.
To the extent we can keep investing in other modes of transportation like walking and biking, we can reduce our car volume and free up the roads for those who are coming outside of the city and/or who truly need to drive. Not to mention it’s greener and healthier!
(2) Mixed use fiscals – how does development help the city’s finances and more importantly, how does it help my tax bill?
The 9 mixed use development projects net $4.5M annually to city revenues (that’s net of service costs). $4.5M is equivalent to about 9 cents on the property tax rate. In other words – instead of the current $1.23 tax rate, the tax rate would be $1.32 if we didn’t have these projects. Post development gross revenues from mixed use projects ($12M) is 13X more than what was generated on those parcels previously ($970K) as they often replaced underperforming, dilapidated space like the former carpet store and RiteAid. My October 2023 post, which may be the most popular one in 2023, links to these details in the most recent “mixed use development report card.”
The 3 projects underway will deliver $7M in net fiscal impact when stabilized – which is potentially another 14 cents on the tax rate.
Aside from finances and diversifying our tax base, it’s also important to point out that mixed use development has also created more housing options and more businesses to enjoy. And we’ve welcomed new neighbors and patrons to those businesses. It keeps our high spending power here and attracts more tax dollars outside of the city as well. Not to mention other community benefits like streetscape upgrades, stormwater and other environmental improvements, and affordable housing.
(3) Tax rates – why are my taxes so high?
Agreed, our real estate taxes are higher than our neighbors but not out of line when compared to other small jurisdictions. And when we talk about affordability, it needs to include taxes. Yet operating a full-service city without the large economies of scale of our neighbors and investing in high quality schools, city services, and competitive employee compensation also cost real money. With economic development and a strong local economy, we’ve reduced the tax rate 12.5 cents the past few years (even while building a new high school, library, and city hall) which has blunted some of that impact of growing property values. I believe it’s important to continue to diversify our tax base in years to come with thoughtful development so we have room to keep lowering the tax rate while funding the services we value.
We’ve also expanded low income senior tax relief program several times, which is important to continue looking out for our most vulnerable and keep them in the community as long as possible.
See my 2017 FAQ post all about taxes and development, where much of this still holds true.
(4) School enrollment/capacity – all of this development is making my kids’ classes too crowded
This comes up every year and hence, I publish the “where students live” data and analysis every year to correct the soundbite. The 2023 analysis is still underway and while the headlines did report there was increased enrollment above projections, the reality is that historically, pupil projections in our new buildings have come in at or below the original projections, with the exception of Pearson Square. Out of ~2500 kids in FCCPS, 218 lived in mixed use buildings as of June 2023 (less than 10% of total students). While we’d welcome more families to attend our terrific schools, mixed use development to date has not “crowded” our schools.
See my September 2023 post that talks about school enrollment, school capacity (TL;DR – we have a lot of school capacity), the 2022 data, and the planning partnership with FCCPS. When the 2023 data is available, I’ll share it.
(5) Tree canopy – we’re losing too many trees and we should save more trees to help slow climate change
I love our tree canopy too and it’s a distinctive part of our city’s identity. In fact, the best data available shows that our tree canopy is actually holding steady at 46% canopy, one of the highest in area and meets/exceeds regional goals. Not widely known is that our residential tree canopy code is already the strictest as allowed by Virginia (20% canopy in 10 years) despite continued lobbying efforts in Richmond every year to have more authority. That doesn’t mean we can’t do better. As the liaison to the Urban Forestry Commission, I’ve advocated for the UFC to develop and recommend commercial tree canopy and green space standards. Commercial redevelopment to date has often replaced lots with impervious surfaces, old buildings, and no trees – so the resulting new development results in improved canopy and green space – but we can still set a higher bar going forward.
(6) Vacancy rates – why do we keep building more mixed use when we can’t even fill the vacant spaces we already have? And the apartments aren’t even full!
It’s false to assert we have high vacancy rates in either our mixed use residential or commercial spaces. In fact, we just heard a report on the state of commercial (see my October 20th post) which showed that our retail vacancy rate of 3.5% is on par with Tysons and Arlington and our office vacancy rate of 6.2% is dramatically lower than our neighbors. Because we’re a small city, each vacancy is that much more visible, so I can see why people believe we have a vacancy issue – but the data says otherwise.
For new residential – as of September 2023, the Modera building in Founders Row is 95% occupied and the Verso building (55+), which opened a little later, is 75% occupied so clearly the residential demand is there. And if you’ve been to Founders Row recently, you’ll have seen how lively the new restaurants and retailers have been, not to mention community use of the plaza – which is a remarkable bounceback despite the pandemic impacts during their construction and opening.
(7) Single family homes – there are too many McMansions. Why does the city keep allowing giant houses to replace starter homes?
I actually wrote about this in my October 2018 post so I encourage you to read that fuller response.
The quick answer is that because of strong property rights in Virginia – teardowns and other redevelopment that occur on single family home (SFH) parcels are usually by-right developments. By right means the city cannot prevent single family neighborhood redevelopment from happening. We have rules restricting the new building’s height, lot coverage, setbacks, canopy coverage, etc but if those are met, then the property owner can redevelop that house within those parameters. And of course, real estate economics are at play. A bigger house generates more profit to offset the high cost of land (which is nearly $1M for a parcel these days), so developers are naturally incented to tear down, build new, and build bigger. Also, there continues to be demand for big houses so until that changes, developers or individual owners will continue to create a supply of larger homes to meet the demand.
To slow that generational turnover of starter home stock, I believe it’s important to look at broader mechanisms too. For example – are there financial incentives that would encourage seniors to stay in their home, such as expanded tax relief programs? Or legalizing creative housing options like accessory dwelling units (ADUs) where someone could earn extra income from the ADU to offset costs and/or move into the ADU in order to rent out the main house – without needing to sell to a developer? And are we investing in physical and social infrastructure so that Falls Church can be an accessible and livable community for all generations?
(8) Housing – we aren’t doing enough on affordable housing and/or what is being built isn’t affordable!
Agreed, affordable and diverse housing are regional and national crises. (Would you believe one of my first posts in 2015 was about this very topic, before it became “mainstream” in recent years?) This has been a priority of mine since my first election in 2016, because I think housing is so central to all of the other issues in front of local government – transportation, economic development, workforce and hiring challenges, environmental and financial sustainability. And if we believe we have a social and moral responsibility as a community to address housing, we can’t rely solely on market-driven solutions (although the data does show that adding more supply in general slows down price growth).
We have made huge strides in recent years: pre 2016, 6% of units in new buildings were set aside as affordable for 15-20 years and with our most recent negotiations at Founders Row 2, 12% of units are set aside as affordable and will never expire. In total, we’re adding 99 more new affordable units (that’s a 50% increase) with the 3 projects under construction. We’ve also launched new programs like affordable homeownership and acquisition of quads at Virginia Village for an eventual redevelopment. But it’s not enough given the regional goals. Our strategy needs to consist of three prongs:
- Preserve: our first priority needs to be to preserve upcoming expiring units as it’s far more efficient to save what we’ve already built. We started that last year by preserving the Read Building’s teacher workforce units which were set to expire. However preservation is not enough because we know that our current affordable housing stock is already insufficient.
- Add more: we should keep negotiating 10-12% of all new units to be affordable in perpetuity and a cash option should we want to leverage that source of funds for future initiatives. We also should invest in deeply affordable units (30-40% of area median income) – targeting jobs like cashiers, custodians, food service workers – which the market can’t produce easily; we started this in the most recent FY24 budget we adopted and end of year surplus appropriations.
- Add different: zoning and land use policies are options to add more diverse housing stock, beyond large single family homes and rental apartments. While not “capital A” affordable – smaller homes are naturally more affordable than what the market is building. Housing reform is a national challenge many localities have taken on, so we should explore policies that have been implemented elsewhere to see how they might work in Falls Church. Greater housing choices in terms of size and price should be an overarching policy goal – such as cottages, townhouses, condos, accessory dwellings. Many housing options can be created without negative environmental impacts because their total footprint is the same as what can already be done by-right.
If you missed my September 2023 post on housing, it includes the latest research from Pew and a good overview of current housing stock and programs underway in the city.
Older FAQ posts:
2018 FAQs #2
2018 FAQs #1
Voter Guides & Endorsements*
- FCNP Candidate Statements (new!)
- League of Women Voters Voter Guide
- VPIS (Village Preservation and Improvement Society) Candidate Questionnaire
- Patch.com has published theirs for all four City Council candidates; here is mine.
- Sierra Club Endorsements
- Falls Church News-Press Endorsements
*only the Falls Church News-Press and the Sierra Club have endorsed City Council candidates