Updates from Letty – January 22, 2021

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,

After this week’s historic moments and collective sigh of relief, I know there is still some anxiety around, especially over the prospects of vaccinations to finally end COVID-19. Thanks for all the good questions about vaccines from my post last week. We are continuing to advocate for our residents, and I am heartened that new federal leadership has already taken action. In the meantime, the Fairfax Health Department currently has much greater demand than available supply of vaccines. If you are 65+ or a high risk adult and are already registered, you’re urged to be patient – the Health Department will contact you as soon as there is supply. There is a new round of FAQs published by the Health Department (in addition to my post last week that had various links too).

This week’s work session was a productive one, with topics that will likely pique most everyone’s interest: Broad and Washington (aka Whole Foods project), which will be up for a final vote next Monday, affordable housing in that development, Founders Row, traffic calming, the noise ordinance, and the latest on our financials. I’m happy to hear any questions or comments from you.

Take care,

PS – Thanks to the high volume of public comments, many of which were from you (thank you!), on Virginia’s electronic meeting participation policy, HB1931 is making its way through the General Assembly, now in session. Last November, I wrote about urging Richmond to lift the cap of 2 electronic meetings per year so those with families, aging parents who need care, less flexible jobs, transportation issues, etc can more readily volunteer or run for office. The cap is now proposed to be 25% of a body’s annual meetings, a decent compromise. You can provide your support of HB1931 before the full House votes; if passed, it will head to the Senate after crossover in February. ICYMI from December, this priority is one of many others within our annual Legislative Program we advocate with our delegation.

What Happened this Week:

(1) Broad and Washington Project

We had a final work session based on the last submission on the Broad and Washington project, which will be up for a second/final vote next Monday. There are over 25 documents in Monday’s agenda package – from board and commission comments to architectural renderings to the latest redline of voluntary concessions – too many to link here. The staff report is a good summary.

The project is proposed to be a 339 unit mixed unit development, anchored with a 56k square foot Whole Foods and a new home for Creative Cauldron, yielding between $1.1M-$1.5M in net annual revenue and other voluntary concessions. If the project were to be approved, the city would sell the adjacent public parking lot that currently houses 64 public spaces, which would be replaced with 64 public spaces in a new garage built on the footprint. Last year, after addressing interim parking plans, the project received support from neighboring businesses, Clare and Dons and Thompson Italian.

Among other final negotiations this week, we encouraged the developer to get similar support from The State Theater and neighbors and strengthen the language for a Whole Food commitments in spite of having a signed lease.

(2) Affordable Housing

A large part of our Broad and Washington discussion above was on affordable housing units within the new development, a topic I last wrote about in December and last October following the most recent affordable housing study. Our current policy proposes 6% of new units be set aside as affordable for people earning 60% AMI (area median income). For reference, 60% AMI for a family of 4 is roughly $75K/year – these are households who have jobs that are critical in our community: teachers, restaurant workers, health assistants. Below is a helpful chart of sample occupations at various AMI levels.

Source: https://www.camoinassociates.com/humanizing-data-area-median-income-ami-and-affordable-housing-policy

With the current deficit in affordable housing stock and impending expirations of other units on top of a pandemic that is exacerbating affordable housing, we should treat this as a crisis – the need for more affordable housing is greater than ever. We need a step change from the 6% set aside if we want to be the welcoming and inclusive community we espouse and aspire to be.

Mixed use development in the city has traditionally brought in a large basket of voluntary concessions, including cash proffers that are meant to help offset a variety of capital needs in the city. Given the large capital investments for schools, library, city hall, and parks the past few years – our future capital needs are much smaller. Among other policies, we should be willing to evolve our concession model to shift those developer dollars toward more affordable housing as a more pressing need and secure more affordable units.

With Broad and Washington, we have an option to increase the affordable housing from 6% to 10% of the total building, serve households between 40-80% AMI, and set a higher bar going forward. While there are many stakeholders in this decision, ultimately the City Council has the tough responsibility of prioritizing dollars against our needs and values. If you have thoughts on this topic, I’m happy to hear from you.

(3) Founders Row

Another casualty of pandemic is the bankruptcy of the theater that was to anchor the under-construction Founders Row project. This week, we reviewed a request from the developer, Mill Creek, to revise the voluntary concessions in response to economic conditions.

The original commitment connected the issuance of certificates of occupancy (COs) for a portion of the apartments to the construction of the theater. Mill Creek assures us they remain committed to finding a replacement theater and proposes putting in $3.6M into an escrow account if there is no signed lease at the opening of the apartments. The cash will remain in escrow until tenant improvements for a movie theater are underway.

Much like the renegotiations we had to complete recently with the West Falls Church project, this is a difficult decision in front of us. I’d welcome ideas for alternate mechanisms of ensuring the developer opens a theater as planned.

(4) Neighborhood Traffic Calming

Staff shared an informative update on the Neighborhood Traffic Calming Program. As part of our request to “clear the queue” in 2020 – out of 11 projects in total, 6 were complete, 2 have minor work left, and 3 are underway. The good news is that there has been no new projects petitioned or added to the queue, but I believe this may be only temporary since car traffic waned during the pandemic. I know this will continue to be a priority for residents of Falls Church.

Of note is the most ambitious and largest geographic area for traffic calming we’ve undertaken to date – the Greenway Downs project – that will kickoff soon with neighborhood surveying and engagement. Since we were receiving multiple requests for traffic calming concerns from the streets off Rt 29, the requests have been bundled into 1 big project to create a holistic solution and avoid creating solutions on one street that would divert traffic onto another parallel street.

(5) Noise Ordinance Update

Updating the current noise ordinance has been on the to-do list for awhile. The current/old ordinance is based on a “reasonable person standard” which is a more subjective standard and was struck down by the Virginia Supreme Court. The city now has a noise meter and can more objectively address noise complaints, so the ordinance is recommended to be updated. It’s quite detailed and covers everything from barking dogs to lawn equipment to construction noise and daytime vs nighttime hours. As proposed, the new ordinance is comparable to neighboring localities and makes distinctions for various zoning districts.

During work session we shared feedback for revisions that will be made before it’s back on an upcoming agenda.

(6) Financials Update

With the first half of Fiscal Year 2021 complete, the no news/good news is that financials are coming in mostly as expected.

Overall, revenues are slightly over budget but key revenue indicators still show mixed results – for example: sales tax remains strong with grocery and internet sales, while dining and hospitality businesses are still hurting – meals tax revenue met the budgeted target for the year which is at 75% of pre COVID-19 levels and hotel taxes were budgeted at 65% of pre COVID-19 level and came in at 35% (#shoplocal) More details here.

For broader context, Virginia is working through the state budget process as well. The good news is that Virginia is one of the few states with increased revenue growth even during a pandemic, and things don’t look as grim as feared several months ago.

As the FY22 budget process kicks off soon, there is still much uncertainty ahead and we will keep monitoring the data.

What’s Coming Up:

Current draft schedule of meetings and agenda items: https://fallschurch-va.granicus.com/GeneratedAgendaViewer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=1408

City Council Meetings start at 730 pm, unless otherwise specified. You can access the agenda and livestream here, including recordings of past meetings including virtual Board & Commission meetings: https://www.fallschurchva.gov/471/Watch-City-Council-Meetings