Updates from Letty – February 9, 2024

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,

While we had a week off from an official City Council meeting last week – it didn’t quite feel like a week off as we traveled to Richmond for our annual visit and meetings with legislators and held a retreat for Council to plan our priorities for the next two years. Plus, we had a busy work session this week (everything you want to know about sewer infrastructure, bike master plan updates, and mixed use development financials!) and exciting celebrations in between. Lots to share – so read on.

This weekend, I’ll be celebrating Lunar New Year at the Eden Center on Saturday, followed by the mid session town hall with Delegate Simon and Senator Salim. I hope to see or hear from you soon.


PS – Calling all artists! Ever since our first pilot box, I’ve been excited to see this public art project expand. Help us decorate 4 more unsightly (but necessary) utility boxes around town with your art – check out the call for art.

What Happened This Week:

(1) Sanitary Sewer Infrastructure

We had an in depth discussion on the status of our sewer infrastructure and additional investments needed in the coming years. Did you know that the City’s sewer system discharges into two neighboring systems – the Fairfax (Tripps Run) and Arlington (Four Mile Run) sewer systems?

While we have plenty of capacity on the Arlington side, we will need to purchase additional capacity from Fairfax and consider a “flow equalization structure” in Cavalier Trail park, likely under the tennis courts, to manage peak flows. Some of the additional needs are due to planned growth but also due to a legacy issue. Our old systems have an “inflow and infiltration”, aka I&I, issue where high peak flows of stormwater run into the sanity sewer system during big rain events. This peak flow is a legacy issue due to historical policies that allowed residential sump pumps, backyard drains, etc in neighborhoods to discharge into the sewer system. Fortunately we no longer allow those connections and new buildings also have sealed in systems that better segregate stormwater from sewer.

The additional capacity purchase and the flow equalization structure is projected to cost $20M. We expect another discussion in March, especially addressing how to finance this capital need. If you’d like more information, this presentation was helpful. We also have a new-ish Public Utilities Commission and I expect more discussion to happen in their meetings.

(2) Bike Master Plan

We also heard an update on the refresh of the Bike Master Plan, which is underway. The BMP was last adopted in 2015. Based on community input and analysis of user data, current conditions, destinations and connections to other bike facilities, economic development opportunity – staff is recommending focus on 6 priority routes and implementation:

  • East-West Connection between W&OD Trail and West Falls Church (aka, a route to the Secondary School campus)
  • E. Broad Street
  • N West St between W Broad St & Fairfax County
  • S West St between Fairfax County & W Broad St
  • Great Falls Street
  • Park Avenue between Virginia Ave & N West St

Expect more engagement this spring with various meetings with the community and our boards and commissions, before it’s back in front of City Council this summer.

Letty’s Thoughts: While the number of city residents who bike to work currently is low, I think there is a chicken-egg problem. Perhaps ridership is low because we currently have little infrastructure that makes it comfortable or safe for more to bike? And there are reasons other than a work commute where someone may choose to bike. At 2.3 square miles and with the W&OD running through the spine of the city, biking should be a much more accessible option for coming to the city and for traveling within the city. Our long-standing policy of having multiple modes of transportation for all means we should keep increasing our investment in bike and pedestrian infrastructure especially if we also care about hitting our greenhouse gas emissions targets, easing regional traffic congestion, and freeing up parking spaces for those who really need or choose to drive.

(3) Mixed Use Development “Report Card”

I actually wrote about the “report card” for mixed use development in my October 2023 post when the data was hot off the presses, which incidentally was one of my most visited posts ever. There are are a lot of misunderstandings that I tried to dispel with this new 2022 data – that mixed use development has been a money loser for the city (untrue), that development floods our school system with students (untrue), and we have high commercial vacancies (untrue). The data is very clear – the 9 mixed use projects built over the past 20 years in the city generates $4.5M in net revenue (net of all costs) which is equivalent to 9 cents on the property tax rate. This revenue helps fund our world class schools, new capital infrastructure, and city services that our community desires and do it in a way that is maneagable for taxpayers. Remember, we’ve actually lowered the tax rate 12.5 cents over the past few years.

–> What was new this week: what has not been discussed less is the financial picture of projects *before* they’re fully stabilized (ie, constructed, opened, and fully leased out). It’s unrealistic to expect that a building is stabilized on Day 1 of opening. The absorption period is usually about 24+ months, and obviously longer if we have global pandemics. But what may be surprising is that the city collects permit fee revenues during the construction process and levies real estate taxes on the land and building, even while it’s being constructed. For example, the currently under construction Broad and Washington/Whole Foods project has collected over $2M in permit fees (which then is used to fund additional inspectors and staff to oversee the construction). And while the building isn’t even completed or occupied yet, it’s assessed at $46M in 2024 which will bring in over $500K in taxes, about 1 penny on the tax rate.

Letty’s Thoughts: As someone who tries to make decisions rationally, I’m appreciative of the work that goes into the fiscal modeling as one input into our development decisions. Clearly there is more to our decisions than money, but this has been a consistent way for us to approach development. It’s also important that we continuously learn and raise the bar when we conduct this regular report card exercise by comparing our actual results vs our original projections. While I’ve only had a role in 1 out of the 9 projects in the report card, we leverage this opportunity to learn from previous projects so we can improve going forward. I encourage you to go back to that October post and read further. This is a complicated topic so I’d welcome questions and more discussion!

(4) It’s been a busy two weeks…

City Council Goes to Richmond

City Council Retreat – a snapshot of a few priorities we discussed

Kensington’s 7th Birthday & Lee Design Studio Opening – these are noteworthy as they’re both projects that required approvals from the city and not without controversy. It was lovely to see a thriving, vibrant senior community at the Kensington and a local small business owner launch on the ground floor of Pearson Square.

West Falls Opening – also noteworthy was the celebration of the completion of The Wellness Center, our first new office building in 15 years. This is the first of several buildings to open at the West Falls development this year, a project that has been in the making since the November 2017 bond referendum as a key way to finance the cost of Meridian High School.

What’s Coming Up:

Monday, February 12, 2024 – City Council Meeting*

Tuesday, February 20, 2024 – Cirty Council Work Session*

Monday, February 26, 2024 – City Council Meeting*

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