Updates from Letty – June 9, 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,

Thank you for the enthusiastic responses to my announcement last week about seeking re-election. Friends are helping me collect signatures so I’d love your help getting on the ballot if you happen to be approached. As was the case 4 years ago, I plan to be judicious with the use of this newsletter/blog for the campaign – I’ll share when there are election forums and events, voting deadlines, and when I’ll need help with fundraising but otherwise, you can expect business as usual in this communication channel.

Speaking of voting deadlines, tomorrow is the first Saturday of early voting for the Democratic Primary at City Hall, which will continue to have early voting on all weekdays until Saturday, June 17 ahead of Election Day on June 20.

This week – I’ll share the latest on T Zones, which has a lot of public attention and unfortunately also confusion and continued misconceptions. Whether you’ve been following closely or have only been glancing at the headlines, I’ll do my best to explain what’s changed, what hasn’t changed, what I think about all of it, and upcoming timelines. I’d welcome your thoughts.


PS – It will be a busy weekend! I hope to see you at the Tinner Hill Music Festival on Saturday and the next Falls Church Forward meeting on Sunday.

What Happened This Week:

T Zones

Why is the T Zones proposal changing?

We held another public meeting (#21, if you’re counting) on T Zones this week where staff shared a new concept for the code update for Transition Zones (aka T Zones), as it relates to affordable housing. While affordable housing has never been one of the primary goals of modernizing T Zones (the original goals since 2021 were to encourage small-scale, infill development that fits in transition districts and to provide more housing diversity in both form and price) – the previous code proposals for T Zones included a provision for 10% affordable housing if new housing were to be built.

As discussed in this week’s meeting, our new city attorney recommended a different approach for achieving affordable housing in T Zones, aligning the proposal to state code that specifies affordable housing contributions in return for “bonus density” (bonus density could mean extra units, height, square footage, etc). As part of this new approach, staff also recommends a framework that specifies minimum and maximum units/acre and caps on unit size.

Letty’s thoughts: It’s unrealistic to expect T Zones to solve the challenge of housing affordability given that T Zones only make up 3% of the city’s land (and far less when we look at developable land) which is why it was never a primary objective – but every little bit does help. As we have made good strides in affordable housing in the past few years, we also need to add housing supply and diversity, especially middle housing – housing forms somewhere between a 2 bedroom apartment/condo and a 4 bedroom single family home and at/below the 2023 median home price in Falls Church of $900K – which T Zones can address.

What is not changing?

Let’s start with what’s not changing in the T Zones proposal:

Many months of public input, board and commission input, and the Planning Commission’s recommendations have been incorporated into the design controls (ie, the constraints that govern the “size of the box” that could be built in T Zones such as allowable height, setback, lot coverage, tree coverage) I wrote about the evolution of these design controls in one of my recent blog posts – from our original referral in May 2022, to the Planning Commission’s recommendation in February 2023, which then was incorporated along with community input into the staff recommendation we heard in April 2023. The general concept is that there is a base case “size of box” that would be allowed by right (height of 3 stories or 40′, front setback of 20′, 60% lot coverage, etc). And if a developer wanted to seek a taller or bigger box, they would need to seek City Council approval via the Special Use Permit (SUP) process. Those parameters, even under a SUP, are defined and not unlimited. Because there was much work done here, these design controls largely remain the same in the current proposal.

Letty’s thoughts: the “size of the box” is important to get right, which as been of the most concern to adjacent neighbors. If you look at the details in the staff report, the proposed design controls, which have incorporated much public comment, are quite modest and reasonable from what’s actually allowed today and fits in a transition district. For example, 45′ of height is allowed today in T Zones. What’s proposed is 3 stories or 40′ by right (ie, 5′ shorter than what’s allowed today) and only 4 stories or 50′ with SUP approval where the City Council can take into account any special circumstances and neighborhood context. And in some cases, there are new rules that improve what’s there today – for example, there will be a 15% tree canopy requirement vs no requirement today. The SUP process, where City Council has oversight and ultimate approving authority, provides both flexibility and guardrails if projects seek to be taller or bigger.

What is changing?

The latest round of changes mostly impacts “what’s in the box” and how we govern the size and number (and therefore, the price) of what gets built within the building envelope. Staff is recommending the housing that would be built to range from 8 units/acre to 20 units/acre. As T Zones are meant to be “transition”, one would expect the density (units/acre) in T Zones to fall between single family neighborhoods (3-4 units/acre) and mixed use projects in commercial districts (100 units/acre). Staff is also proposing an average unit size cap of 1850 square feet. Previously the code did not specify parameters for units and instead relied on names of housing forms like townhouses, condos, etc.

On affordable housing, state code provides a specific ratio: in return for 30% bonus density, 17% affordable housing should be provided by the developer. (The 30% to 17% ratio would need to be maintained, even if the developer sought bonus density below 30%.)

Letty’s thoughts: The previous T Zone code specified housing types (ie, duplex, quad, condo, townhouses). which is familiar to many. But if you look at what is getting built across the US, builders are innovative and there are far more housing types that can be built in between a condo and a single family home that sit below 40′-50′ in height. The combination of guardrails like unit/acre and size caps could provide more precision and predictability for the market to produce the middle housing types we’d like to see. The main challenge is to ensure the process and code are still flexible enough to generate interest and real project proposals. Given underlying land values and real estate economics – I worry that allowing 8-20 units/acre will actually only elicit luxury townhomes to be built. (For reference, the two Park Ave townhome projects built in the 1990s are 7-10 units/acre and sized at 3000-3700 square feet. And while they would be in high demand, they are not middle housing in my opinion.) I’d like to see more units/acre allowed in T Zones within the proposed building envelopes.

What’s next?

Staff will be incorporating our input based on the work session discussion this week. Expect there to be a walking tour for T Zone sites later in June (likely before our June 26 meeting), another work session to review the draft code language in early July, ahead of a first reading vote before the end of the summer.

What’s Coming Up:

Monday, June 12 – City Council Meeting*

Wednesday, June 21 – Letty’s Office Hours (noon)

Monday, June 26 – City Council Meeting*

Wednesday, June 28 – Ask the Council Office Hours (9-10 am, City Hall)

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