Updates from Letty – April 28, 2023

Blog posts are the personal views of Letty Hardi and not official statements or records on behalf of the Falls Church City Council

Dear Friends,

City Council was back in the saddle this week. It was a packed agenda spanning housing, budget, T zones, and ground floor uses – so fair warning – this post will also be packed. I hope you’ll find it useful to stay engaged and understand my positions. Because I think housing is central to much of local government policy, my bias is to spend more time there. Finally, I’ll include some fun links to happenings from the past few weeks to catch you up.

I had a full house at my office hours last week and in the Ask the Council office hours this week. I look forward to continuing to hear from you in person, via email, or on Monday nights during our regular meetings (virtually or in City Hall) about the budget or other topics.


PS – Community Survey underway: If you get a call/text/email from Probolsky Research, please respond! This is a community survey so we can hear your thoughts re the city to inform future priorities and programs. (The survey is invitation-only so we can have a statistically significant, representative sample of the city.) See here for a screenshot of what one of the texts may look like.

What Happened This Week:

(1) All Things Housing – “Abundant, Affordable, and Diverse

We welcomed the Housing Commission to give their annual report and housing staff to share the Status of Affordable Housing report. Both reports would merit its own dedicated post, so if you are interested in our affordable housing efforts, housing supply in general, or goals of the Housing Commission in 2023 – I encourage you to click through.

(Totally not planted, but my 5th grader’s Exhibition Project also covered housing – #fromthemouthofbabes)

A few notable call outs from the two reports:

  • We currently have 202 units of committed affordable rental units.
  • The good news: we have 3 projects underway (West Falls, Broad and Washington, and Founders Row 2) that will add 99 affordable units – a 50% increase to the total stock, bringing the expected total to 301 units. It is over these 3 projects where we’ve also inched up the percentage of units – from 6% to 10% to 12% of units – designated as affordable.
  • The bad news: up until Founders Row 1, all of the affordable units previously built will expire. Specifically, 159 units will expire by 2040, which is more than half of the 301 units. As a reminder, starting with Founders Row – we’ve negotiated the units to be affordable for the life of the project so at least the problem won’t get worse.
  • Preserving and extending the affordability of already built units is an important strategy (as it’s more cost efficient) along with creation of new affordable units and increasing the housing supply in general. For example, we recently used grants to extend the affordability periods for 9 teacher workforce housing units by 10 years at the Read Building. Up next to expire are the affordable units at Pearson Square in 2027.
  • Housing diversity is an important issue to tackle too: this pie chart of the city’s current housing stock below explains how the buzzy term “Missing Middle” is relevant in Falls Church. 39% of our housing is single family homes, 43% apartments (older and newer mixed use), 13% townhomes/mixed unit, and 5% condos. What happens when apartment residents need more space or when single family residents need to downsize?

Must read: one of the best housing articles I’ve read in a while. It makes a strong, data-backed case that increasing housing supply, even at market rate, is an important part of tackling the housing crisis.

(2) Pearson Square Amendment

We voted 5-2 to allow a local architecture firm to occupy one of the ground floor spaces at Pearson Square, which previously had restrictions limiting the use to retail and has been vacant for 2 years. See my early March post for more details when we first head this request and referred out to the Planning Commission, who returned it to us recently with their unanimous support.

Letty’s thoughts: As I’ve written about previously, we’ve been fielding a number of ground floor use changes as the commercial environment has evolved. I supported allowing this flexibility at Pearson Square, especially to welcome a homegrown small business that will bring new jobs, foot traffic/spinoff economic benefit to the city vs a vacant space would bring neither. (Not coincidentally, Pearson Square is across S. Maple from the mini Target. Low foot traffic and sales have been cited as potential factors for Target’s imminent closure.) Ideally we could have negotiated the requested change for an extension for some or all of the affordable units in Pearson Square that expire in 2027 or additional ground floor vacancy expected next year, but the owner had little economic incentive to engage in those negotiations.

(3) FY24 Budget

We’re in the home stretch of budget season, with our “mark up” session next week and the final adoption on May 8. During our discussion this week, we continued weighing community and staff needs. This Q&A document is both an interesting and informative view of the questions City Council has been probing and the city’s budget homepage is a good repository of the budget book, department videos, presentations, and town hall recordings.

Letty’s thoughts: with no tax rate increase (except small increases in stormwater and sanitary sewer rates to account for inflation) and the School Board’s budget request fully funded, it’s been a relatively quiet budget season, especially if we were to compare it to some of my first budget years! That said, it’s worth noting Public Works core infrastructure (paving, sidewalks, signals) continues to be short in funding, a residual impact of cuts during the Great Recession and then held flat during our recent heavy debt years to afford the high school, library, and city hall. Transportation safety is also one of our top concerns and requests from the community. This week, I requested staff come back with a plan that responsibly deploys some of our healthy capital reserves to “catch up” on funding these core needs that we’ll discuss next week.

(4) T Zones

We had another work session (our 7th) on T zones ahead of a scheduled first reading on May 22, with updates from staff incorporating our comments from our March work session.

As a recap, updates to the Transitional Districts (aka T Zones) are intended to meet three goals, which I’ve consistently stated since 2021:

  • Providing for current and future generations’ housing needs (see housing reports in #1 above);
  • Promoting diversity of form and price for residential and commercial spaces; and
  • Encouraging reinvestment in T-Zones while creating harmonious transitions between commercial and residential districts.

The staff report contains many more rows in this matrix, but this is a snapshot of the modest evolution of the zoning code on heights/setbacks/stepbacks – comparing what’s allowed today in T zones to our May 2022 referral to the Planning Commission’s recommendations to us in February 2023 to the most recent staff recommendations. For example, you’ll see that the current allowable height in T zones is 45′ tall today and what’s proposed is a 40′ by right (ie, 5′ lower) or 50′ (5′ taller) if the application seeks approval through the Special Use Permit process with the City Council. Likewise, there are no stepback requirements today and front yard setback requirements are actually *deeper*, from 15″ today for non SFH uses to 20′ proposed. Outside of numbers, it’s also worth pointing out that environmental protections are actually *increasing* – by adding tree canopy and stormwater requirements, which there are none today in the T zones.

Letty’s thoughts: At 2+ years in, I’ve appreciated the diligent work of city staff and the input we’ve received. Similar to how I’ve approached other complex topics in front of us in the past, I’ve reviewed all the comments received to date, my notes from the public engagement opportunities (I’ve attended all of them: Planning Commission listening session, League of Women Voters-hosted town hall, and a city-hosted town hall), and board and commission comments – to make sure I’ve heard, captured, and considered the input. The details do matter here. And if you’ve watched any of our deliberations, you’ll know that we’ve really dug in as we try to balance the code changes to encourage the development of housing and small scale development with neighborhood input.

(5) Fun / Misc (good job if you made it this far!)

Always uplifting, we recognized the 7th grade winners of the VML If I Were Mayor essay contest. Congrats Talia!

Kudos to planning staff for tabling at the Eden Center for extended community engagement for the East End Area Plan. I’ve seen them hard at work at all 4 pop ups, engaged in discussion with visitors and businesses, to hear their thoughts on how to re-invest in the Eden Center now and in the future. Expect a work session on the East End plan in late May.

Openings and celebrations – last week, we helped celebrate the grand openings for Ellie Bird and Skin Lab Med Spa. We also welcomed regional and state leaders, including former Congressman Jim Moran, to the city in the ribbon cutting for the S. Washington Transit Plaza and S. Maple new intersection. I also enjoyed the opportunity to have lunch with Senator Warner and make a few plugs for Falls Church.

If you missed the Community Energy Action Plan town hall/open house at Meridian High School last week, it’s not too late! You can give us your input here.

What’s Coming Up:

Monday, May 1 – City Council Work Session – Final Budget Markup*

Monday, May 8 – City Council Meeting – Final Budget Adoption*

Monday, May 22 – City Council Work Session*

Wednesday, May 24 – Ask the Council Office Hours (City Hall, 9-10 am)

*every Monday (except 5th Mondays and holidays) at 7:30 pm. You can access the agenda and livestream here, including recordings of past meetings