Updates from Letty – November 15, 2019

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 hit the ground running again post-election with a packed agenda. Lots to share and opportunities for you to engage: more details on the 10 acre development (the West Falls Church development project)scooterstransportation grants (those who have expressed concerns about safety on Shreve Rd and would like better bike access to MEH/GMHS/Metro – read on), the future of our local juvenile detention center, and LGBTQ rights – hopefully a preview of more progressive legislation we’ll see enabled when the General Assembly convenes in January.

A final reminder: if you are interested in volunteering for the stormwater task force to help prioritize flood mitigation projects across the city, applications are due today at 5 pm. We’ve received an enthusiastic response, so we’re working overtime to interview everyone, make recommendations on appointments, and stand up the task force in December.

I look forward to hearing from you about all of these topics!


What Happened This Week:

(1) West Falls Church Economic Development Project           

As you may recall – it’s been a momentous 5 months for the West Falls Church projects. We approved the conceptual plan for the 10 acre site, signed a comprehensive agreement with the EYA/Hoffman/Regency developer team, received the first land transaction payment from the developers, and broke ground on the high school. Whew!

In January, we expect the site plan for the development project to be submitted which will then kickoff a 6-9 month review process and series of public meetings. The site plan will have final details such as building heights, massing, architecture, landscaping, etc. The high school construction is scheduled to complete Dec 2020/Jan 2021 and students and staff will move into the new building over winter break – paving the way for the current/old school to be demolished and the development project to start Spring/Summer 2021. Phase 1 of the development will include a majority of the uses – rental apartments, condos, office, hotel, and retail totaling $1M square feet with a Phase 2 for additional office and housing.

We had a work session with the Planning Commission and the Economic Development Authority (EDA) this week and a Town Hall was held on Wednesday night (video and documents linked here) to preview the January site plan submission. The School Board also received the presentation this week. Overall, we were all pleased with the direction and the next phase of detail, with special emphasis on creative stormwater management, vibrant gathering spaces, a welcoming retail environment that overcomes topography challenges, more modern architecture, and connectivity to the adjacent development parcels.

Speaking of adjacent partials, a notable piece of info I pulled out from a regional breakfast we attended this week where the WFC project was profiled: With planned redevelopment of the land adjacent to ours, close coordination is happening. The combined 30+ acres is envisioned to have a half mile mile promenade- starting from the commons on our project, connecting the University and Metro parcels to the West Falls Church Metro station. The half mile is a comparable length of successful, enjoyable places like Old Town Alexandria, Georgetown, and Mosaic.

If you missed the Town Hall – do take a look at the video or documents, where there are lots of new precedent images and early architecture renderings. There will be another Town Hall on December 12.

(2) Scooters – what’s passed and what’s not yet decided

As you may recall from my previous posts, we have to implement a scooter program (technically it’s for all “shared mobility devices”) by the end of the year else the state laws will prevail. As expected, the pilot program passed 7-0 as the result of a well-researched proposal by city staff.

Also in front of us was a new ordinance to ban scooter riding on sidewalks, except on Rt 7 and Rt 29 – in response to a discussion in our last meeting. Ordinance changes require two votes, and the first vote this week narrowly passed 4-3, with me being one of the three dissenting votes. We’ve heard from a lot of citizens on both sides of the issue. If you have thoughts, please share them with us before our second vote on December 9 when we’ll have the opportunity to revise the ordinance.

Letty’s thoughts:

As a regular proponent for both walkability and alternative modes of transportation, I am concerned that a blanket ban of scooters on sidewalks doesn’t strike a good balance.

I view our job is to consider safety for all modes of transportation, with this Council’s emphasis on car-free modes in particular for congestion, parking, and environment considerations among other reasons. Scooters are an emerging mode that is showing success in replacing some car trips. So if we’re serious about promoting new modes, we also need to assure their riders’ safety. Banning scooters from sidewalks will force people to ride in streets where they do not feel safe and would discourage usage – and a pilot is important to collect data on scooters’ viability and future infrastructure needs. While allowing them on Rt 7 and Rt 29 sidewalks acknowledges that scooters shouldn’t mix with cars on those streets, car-heavy secondary streets will also pose issues. Also, the practical reality is that scooters will cross borders (and we want them to!). Other jurisdictions like Arlington and Alexandria also started with a ban on sidewalk riding and are now walking it back after learning from their one-year pilots. Since they will be allowed on sidewalks elsewhere, different rules will make it chaotic and confusing for riders as they cross boundaries.

The real shame is how car-centric our infrastructure is and how we’re a long ways from retrofitting the old suburban model to accommodate greener modes of transportation. Protected bike lanes (or multi-use lanes) should ultimately be the gold standard if we’re serious about multi-modal. For now, I would support a more moderate approach that balances pedestrian and scooter rider safety. Besides the different speed limits for streets (15 mph) vs sidewalks (6 mph – which is the equivalent of a 10 minute mile for fellow walkers/runners, ie a slow run or brisk walking pace), we could also require scooter riders to yield, and even dismount, when passing pedestrians on sidewalks. We could also implement a “no scooter on sidewalks zone” in the civic center – near the library and city hall – which in reality, is the only place we have sizeable pedestrian traffic. I’m hoping we can reach sensible, compomise regulation for the pilot period. I would value additional input from citizens before our final vote.

(3) Traffic Calming

As we continue to hear from more citizens about their traffic calming needs, we will continue to push for more and faster solutions – including using both grant money and local funds. Expect the project at Gundry/Annandale to get underway this winter with Great Falls/Little Falls improvements to follow. The upcoming budget amendment on the surplus is now pushed to a January vote (so that final cost estimates from the library and city hall can be incorporated), which means we won’t be able to deploy the surplus on traffic calming needs until after the vote – so I asked that we consider accelerating funding for traffic calming. I also reiterated my request to have dedicated funding for a sidewalk program, as the citizen requests to connect missing link sidewalks and build new sidewalks altogether are only growing and there is currently no budget allocation to meet those needs.

(4) Stormwater – as I wrote above, we’ve had a very strong response from citizens to join the task force to help prioritize the next phase of flood mitigation projects so that the most cost-effective stormwater improvements that will protect the most people can get started next year. The task force’s work will be fast and furious, targeting to wrap up in the spring so funding can be considered in the next budget cycle.

The City Manager also wrote this week’s guest commentary about our approach on stormwater and next steps, including a coming-soon backflow device program to help households who have also experienced sanitary sewer flooding issues.

(5) Transportation Grants – we also endorsed three large transportation grant applications this week, two initiated by us and one initiated by Fairfax County.

  • We’ve applied for a $7M grant to improve the connection from the W&OD to the Haycock/Rt 7 intersection along Shreve Road – adding a 10’ wide path and crosswalks, important for commuters and students who may be walking or biking along Shreve Road. We also submitted a $8M grant to improve downtown Falls Church along Park Ave, including widening sidewalks, undergrounding utility poles, and straightening out the infamous Maple/Park intersection.
  • Fairfax County has also asked us to endorse their $95M grant application for the first phase of the “ring road” project in Seven Corners. As this could have impacts to Hillwood and the neighborhoods off E. Broad, our endorsement includes conditions that Falls Church is consulted in design and we work to alleviate heavy truck traffic on Rt 7 (currently Route 7 is the only major road that allows trucks to travel to and from Seven Corners).
  • Letty’s takeaways: transportation is expensive! And winning grant money to help fund these needs is an important strategy to make our dollars go further. As our grants get to the public input stage where we’ll need to compete for the funds across the region later this spring, stay tuned – having loud and active support for our projects will help us win the grants, akin to the $15.7M grant we won last year for the Haycock/Rt 7 work for the high school and WFC projects.

(6) NVJDC – Do you know what is the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center? You may know it colloquially as “juvie.” The TL;DR version: Arlington, Alexandria, and Falls Church jointly own and operate the facility located in Alexandria. With decreasing juvenile incarceration rates, the NVJDC is underutilized and a study is underway to make recommendations for the future of the facility. I toured NVJDC a few weeks ago, which was eye-opening. There are a series of pubic meetings and an online survey.

(7) LGBTQ Rights – finally, a no-brainer vote for us, but worth mentioning. With a more liberal legal interpretation that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender status falls within “sex discrimination” – we voted on language that affirmed that discrimination is wrong and extends protections for LGBTQ citizens for housing and cable TV franchisees’ employment. I would love to see these basic civil rights protections extended to all private employment in Falls Church, which we currently cannot do without General Assembly permission.

What’s Coming Up: