Updates from Letty – February 6, 2020

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,

You’ll notice that this week’s post is hitting your inboxes a day early. As you read, I’m on my way to Richmond for our annual General Assembly lobbying trip, so my regular writing day got moved up. An earlier post is a good opportunity to make a timely plug: with heavy rain expected later today, the City is under a flood watch and offering free sandbags. Also, if you are prone to flooding, a fellow city resident started a Google Group that is a good resource where neighbors share tips to lower risk of flooding, sewage backups, and occasional updates about city-related projects. Email littlecitywaterproofers@gmail.com to subscribe.

Aside from potential flooding, the most urgent + important item to start paying attention is the upcoming Metro rail closures. From May 23 to September 7, East Falls Church, Dunn Loring, and Vienna Metro stations will be closed for platform reconstruction – leaving West Falls Church the only Orange Line station west of Arlington. Metro shared with us their early plans for substitute transportation options. Whether you’re a Metro rider or live nearby, expect that the closures will be disruptive. Read on, look for a lot more info coming in the spring, and start planning now! Summer telework is a great option if your employer supports it.

For fellow zoning nerds, we also had a discussion on Cottage Housing and the Greenway Downs neighborhood. Zoning likely doesn’t excite many, but the important takeaway is how zoning can be a powerful tool in achieving many of the policy goals we have – such as a diverse and affordable housing stock – but we also need to be careful in understanding downstream impacts and not creating unintended consequences. If you live near Railroad Cottages (or have seen it off the W&OD) or live in Greenway Downs, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts after you read the updates below.

Finally, thank you for the comments I’ve received in response to my post and op-ed last week about our upcoming budget amendment, library vote, and traffic calming. Like other tough decisions we’ve had, I aim to be thoughtful and rational and will continue to work hard to balance all the needs across the city.

Stay dry,

What Happened This Week:

(1) Metro Orange Line Closures

Four stations on Orange/Silver will undergo platform reconstruction: Vienna, Dunn Loring, West Falls Church, and East Falls Church. All 4 but West Falls Church will be closed from May 23 to September 7. West Falls Church Station will remain open during the project because it is equipped with two platforms that can be reconstructed one at a time. Silver Line stations from McLean to Wiehle-Reston East remain open, but with reduced service. With single tracking, expect big 8 car trains to operate but 16 minutes between trains at rush hour. With West Falls Church being the only Orange line station open west of Arlington, Metro expects 4-5x current usage at that one station.

Metro is coordinating with the region for various combinations of express and on demand buses to help riders continue to use public transit. Proposed shuttle routes are below, with a lot more details in the presentation. Expect to see more communication and outreach by Metro through press releases, news outlets, open houses, etc in the spring.

Planned 2020 Metro closures

Besides a very busy West Falls Church Metro station, we also discussed that the western part of the city will undergo more construction activity this summer – including the sanitary sewer project along Haycock/Shreve/Rt 7 for the new high school and 10 acre site already underway, the W&OD Dual Trails project, and more. As a fellow West Ender, I’m trying to think ahead about detour routes and how to stay away!

(2) Cottage Housing Check In

It’s been 3 years since we passed the zoning changes to enable a cottage housing pilot, and the ordinance built in a check in step at 3 years to determine if we would continue, amend, or repeal the ordinance.

A brief primer: the ordinance stipulated the specific areas of the city that could be developed into cottages – within 500 ft of “revitalization areas” so that the cottages would be in walkable, transit-accessible neighborhoods, parcels of a certain size, be subject to the same lot coverage requirements as traditional single family house (so a cottage community wouldn’t create more impervious surface or cut down more trees than a by-right single family redevelopment would), and be age-restricted to 55+. To date, only one cottage housing project has been built in the city – adjacent to the W&OD Trail and Ellison Ave – with all 10 cottages of Railroad Cottages now sold and occupied.

Staff proposed various options for discussion that would relax the restrictions on where cottage housing could be built. One option is to expand the buffer area from 500 ft to 1/4 mile from a revitalization area, a more common walkability standard – illustrated below.

Letty’s thoughts: first, I think an official 3 year check in is a wise step we should implement for many of our big decisions, including developments so we can compare what got built vs planned, whether the original concerns panned out, or if there were new ones we didn’t anticipate. While we regularly monitor financials of projects after they’re built, I think it’s worthwhile to check in on the more subjective results of our decisions and learn from them going forward.

At the time, cottage housing was the controversial decision of 2016-2017 (before the high school referendum). The policy goal of adding more diverse housing stock, especially for seniors looking to downsize, still stands. In fact, the need continues to grow every year as housing becomes more expensive and boomers continue to reach retirement age. I broadly support the idea of more cottage communities and would consider expanding more areas of the city eligible for cottages, especially if we can push for more affordable cottages. That said, I’m also fan of incrementalism and wouldn’t want a wholesale change of the ordinance. Having been indoctrinated with “test & learn” at Capital One (fellow COF’ers will understand), I think it’s important to be deliberate, understand pros/cons, then try out changes incrementally and observe results vs relaxing all the criteria at once.

(3) Greenway Downs Zoning Amendment

The Greenway Downs neighborhood is the set of streets between Rt 29 and Seaton Lane – W Marshall St, W George Mason, W Greenway Blvd, W Cameron Rd, and W Westmoreland Rd. For various reasons, those lots are all “non-conforming” with the current zoning code we have. As such, when residents have wanted to expand their house by adding front porches, bumping out for an addition, or other renovation changes that expand the footprint – they have to get variances from the Board of Zoning Appeals in order to do the work, which is more burdensome than elsewhere in the city.

Staff proposed various recommendations that would make it easier to make improvements to their homes without seeking a code variance from the BZA or tearing down the original structure. The staff report details out the various changes to be considered for Greenway Downs, including changing set backs, allowing extra lot coverage only for front porches or additions to the existing building.

Letty’s thoughts: While I support the idea of making additions and renovations easier for homeowners as a means to preserve more affordable, older single family housing, I am dubious whether the zoning changes would actually incent that behavior. Currently due to high land values, the economics in residential development often biases towards building the biggest house possible on the lot to maximize the return. Again, the policy goal is worthy, but I think it needs further consideration whether there could be unintended consequences.

What’s Coming Up:

  • Today – Thursday, February 6 – General Assembly Lobbying Day
  • Monday, February 10 – Last day to register to vote before Virginia 2020 Primaries. In person absentee voting already underway!
  • Monday, February 10 – City Council Meeting (730 pm)
  • Tuesday, February 18 – City Council Work Session (730 pm)
  • Monday, February 24 – City Council Meeting (730 pm)