Updates from Letty – July 24, 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,

As expected, we had a packed agenda in our City Council work session with the topics I previewed last week. This week’s post will cover updates on the Broad & Washington (Whole Foods), gun legislation, and a potpourri of other updates. Before jumping into city business, I want to acknowledge for fellow parents that I know emotions are high after this week’s school decisions and offer some personal reflection.

Just when I think I’ve accepted our new reality, a new wave of grief for all that has been lost and will be lost – surprises me. If there was an emotion for anxiety, overwhelm, and weariness – I assure you we’re all feeling it, so please remember to be kind to each other. There are no easy choices in navigating a pandemic, and no decision will please everyone. Please join me in thanking our school leadership through this impossible situation – I bet none of you want that job.

While I know we only have headspace for one crisis at a time these days – there is an intersection of two that I haven’t been able to ignore, especially in light of the “equity awakening” we’ve all experienced. I am seeing a lot of parents scrambling to assemble learning pods of same-age kids, with hired help to supervise their online learning and build in socialization and enrichment. This NYT op ed really resonated and pointed out the equity issues to me. And no judgment here – I get it. The practical reality of distance learning + working parents of young kids is that we need help or we need to stop working. Instead of every man for himself, can our privileged community also use this opportunity to support those who can’t afford to pod up, who likely need it most? We’re all caught in the conflict that the economy and school reopening decisions have been disconnected, so this is a time when we need a safety net for our most vulnerable. I have no answers yet, but I welcome your ideas.

Take care,

PS Please keep my colleague Dan Sze and his family in your thoughts.

What Happened This Week:

Last week’s post largely previewed most of the topics on our agenda, so I’m only going to highlight new information or additional considerations

(1) West End Small Area Plan

This might be arguably the most important small area plan we’ve tackled to date, with the new high school, West Falls project, and opportunities to reimagine the western part of the city all in one plan. The current version is in a really good place after a year of work and will head to the finish line this September. That said, in the era of COVID when we’re not yet ready to hold in person community meetings – getting new citizen input on an important planning document is hard. I challenged staff to think creatively about using online engagement and other outreach so we can reach a different group of citizens who live in the west end, other than the same familiar faces who would usually attend our in person meetings. You can continue sending in feedback at cityclerk@fallschurchva.gov.

(2) Broad & Washington / Insight Project

This was our first work session on the revised project at the corner of Broad and Washington, a mixed use project anchored by a Whole Foods (that was originally approved in 2018 with an office building instead of Whole Foods). There are lots of materials online, but I’d suggest holding off on reviewing them as the developer will be working on a new version to be submitted later this summer, that I hope will substantively address the key issues that have been voiced.

(3) Gun Legislation

After years of proclamations about gun violence, hearing from our citizens to enact more gun control, and asking Richmond in our annual legislative agenda to do so, HB421 granted local jurisdictions the authority to prohibit guns in public places, such as the library, community center, city hall, parks and playgrounds efffective July 1st. We discussed the analysis of a working group on changes to our firearms ordinance. There was majority support on City Council to take a first reading vote next week on the option with the full extent of the authority, which would prohibit the possession, carrying, or transportation or any firearms, ammunition or components or combination thereof in City buildings, facilities, parks, and in streets when such streets are being used for public events – similar to the ordinance adopted in Alexandria last month and being considered in Arlington.

We’ve received a barrage of emails this week – with 80+% of comments from outside of Falls Church, rallied by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, in opposition. On the other hand, hearing from citizens of Falls Church, there is overwhelming support to move ahead. (Typically I try to respond to every constituent email, but I am still working through my inbox. If you’ve sent me an email, it may be buried in 400 other ones and I’ll do my best to respond.)

For long time readers – you’ll know that I try to do my homework and read up on multiple sources to really understand an issue. Two good comprehensive links I’ll share:

  • Review of gun-free zones, specifically whether gun-free zones attract mass shooters (no data that supports) and whether good guys with guns could save the day (1 out of 160 active shootings where this happened).
  • Concealed carry – “A robust body of academic literature shows that when more people carry guns in public, violent crime increases.”

Based on questions raised during our work session, the staff report addresses exemptions to the proposed ordinance – such as for sworn and retired law enforcement. In addition, we have two carve outs for unloaded and secured firearms in a vehicles using streets for transportation or parked on public property. There are also some good Q&As addressed in the staff report.

(4) Washington Gas Easement in West End Park

The need to move a gas regulator station from the high school campus has been discussed in several past meetings. Utilities all over the west end have to be expanded and moved in order to accommodate the new school and development. The proposal is to move several gas regulators, which will have two above ground boxes, in West End Park which would require the city granting an easement in the park. We’ve had several public meetings discussing the issue, the size of easement, and alternative locations (details in the staff report) – including a referral to the Rec and Parks Board.

No one takes this decision lightly, and West End Park was recommended as the best option after that analysis. We’ve also asked tthat full restoration of the landscaping is done as part of this work. We’ll make a final decision in August.

(5) Potpourri

  • Little City businesses, including fitness and exercise, can now apply to use City parks under a temporary permit process. In another effort to expand opportunities for local businesses to operate safely in these unprecedented times – such as allowing parking lots for outdoor dining – the City has now made it possible for businesses to use City park space for a modest fee.
  • The Northern Virginia Regional Commission continues to put out useful COVID data for NoVA. This interactive timeline of the percentage of positive COVID-19 cases from March 16 to present. You can see how folks staying at home, wearing a mask, washing their hands, and employing physical distancing has had a good result for our region.
  • Pay attention to the special session of the General Assembly in August that will address the state budget in light of COVID and criminal and social justice reform.

What’s Coming Up:

  • Sunday, July 26 at 330 pm – The League of Women Voters of Falls Church is hosting a virtual discussion featuring guest speakers Renee Andrews, a member of the Falls Church City Electoral Board, and David Bjerke, the Director of Elections and General Registrar of Voters. They will discuss the recent legislative changes to the voting and registration process in Virginia, as well as plans to provide a safe and effective election in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Email Barbara Lipsky to obtain a link to the Zoom meeting. (You can request your absentee ballot for the November 3rd election, now with no excuse or “valid” reasons needed.)
  • Monday, July 27 at 730 pm – City Council Meeting