Updates from Letty – November 20, 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,

It’s hard to ignore the weighty topic of the moment is our community debate over school renaming. I have deliberately kept the topic out of my posts until now. There is so much passion, pain, and division over the decision, exacerbated by the results of the survey that was shared this week – that I seriously debated whether adding another opinion would help or hurt. I try to be judicious with this platform (the decision is wholly in the School Board’s domain and not City Council’s, although we have work to do of our own) but as one of the few people of color in leadership, my gut says I should use my voice. Read on for my thoughts.

City Council had what many would deem a boring work session, so I’ll update you on those topics in more brevity than usual. If you care about the size of development projects, the character of the city, or affordable housing, do read about proposed changes to the Special Exception (SE) ordinance. The SE is the main land use tool that has enabled the city’s re-development the past 20 years, so any changes shouldn’t be taken lightly – but I do think it’s due for some modernization.

This week, three specific calls to action:

1) While on the topic of surveys, take 5 minutes to share your experience and perceptions of our Police and Sheriff Departments. The Use of Force Review Committee we chartered in the summer would like direct feedback from the community before making final recommendations on police reform.

2) If you believe in more representative government and removing barriers for women, minorities, or those with life circumstances different than most in elected office – join me in supporting more flexibility in Virginia’s electronic participation policy. In non-COVID times, every public body in Virginia is limited to 2 electronic participations per year, regardless of the number of meetings it holds, There is an effort to have the cap lifted so that those with families, aging parents who need care, less flexible jobs, transportation access issues, etc can more readily volunteer or run for office.

3) The COVID-19 surge is on our doorsteps. I risk being a broken record in reminding you that it’s imperative we keep making sacrifices and modify or cancel our usual holiday plans. For my family, instead of indoor gatherings on Thanksgiving day itself – we’re letting the weather determine when we can celebrate outdoors, with masks and tables spaced apart and then video calls afterwards. Vaccines are in sight in 2021 – let’s make it through the winter safely.

Stay safe,

PS – Everyone loves a good sidewalk photo. I checked out our newest sidewalk on S. Maple, with women’s history engravings – it will be worth a (socially distanced) visit after your next Baby Target run.

What Happened This Week:

(1) School Renaming

Besides three kids currently in FCCPS, I have deep roots in Falls Church with multiple TJ and GM alumni so these school names are tied to my family memories. And for fellow ‘Hoos, you may relate to my experience that it only took one week into my first year before equating “Mr. Jefferson’s University” with UVA. And now, as one of the few people of color in elected office in Falls Church where I regularly grapple with the city’s finances (and admittedly lean fiscally conservative in decisions that have a cost like this one) and have weighed some unpopular decisions, I have a perspective on this fraught issue. If you followed my summer series on racial equity (123), you won’t be surprised that I care deeply about this topic so this is not new territory for me either.

If we’ve learned anything from our racial re-awakening this summer, it’s that responsibility for racial justice belongs to all of us, especially those with power and privilege. As such, regardless of your current position on school renaming – I encourage you to consider a few perspectives:

1) Listen to the historically marginalized voices. The system works, and has always worked, for the white majority. Among my circles of friends and neighbors, there was a flurry of texts about our collective disappointment and surprise over the results of the renaming survey that a 2 to 1 majority support keeping the names. Some were so incredulous that we even questioned if there was ballot stuffing. We failed to connect the simple truth that a survey sent to an overwhelmingly white community will come back with opinions anchored in a white experience. The majority offers many rational arguments for keeping the school names and they may not be racist or malicious reasons at all. Diverse perspectives are valuable. I make efforts like write this blog, hold office hours, and read 800 emails about guns because it’s my job to listen and engage with them. But when it comes to racial justice, I believe we should be listening and elevating the under-represented voices if we truly aspire to be welcoming and inclusive to all. If even one Black student is burdened by the name of their school that prevents them from learning and thriving, that should be enough.

2) Don’t believe that we’re too good for racism, systemic or outright, in this progressive little city. As someone who was on the receiving end of “go back to where you came from” as recently as 2 years ago – I can attest it is alive and well in Falls Church. I share this not for sympathy. More importantly, my experience as a privileged Asian American woman is irrelevant and I’ll never be able to fully relate to the Black experience. It’s to illustrate to our white community that we need to open our eyes. Systemic racism is more insidious. It is the air we breathe and the water we drink. It is hard to separate it from the institutions, practices, and norms we experience daily. And it’s even harder to acknowledge that it exists, much less dismantle it, if you’re among the ones that benefit from it. Let’s own and teach our history, flaws and all, including the city’s gerrymandering past, and commit to doing better. But does it need to be memorialized on a statue or a building? Mason and Jefferson may have been our history, but do they represent our future too? 

3) Both/And Decision-Making. Like stormwater, this is another case where I believe we should commit to a comprehensive plan. Putting up a yard sign, signing a petition, and marching are all easy and some would say, performative – they require little to no sacrifice on your part. Regardless of the outcome of renaming, what comes next for you and for us as a community? Are we willing to use our privilege and voice to relieve the burden for someone else? To welcome more people to live here so we can actually be diverse? To open our school doors to more Black and Brown students via reparations-like scholarships? To sacrifice personal, financial, or emotional comfort so others may have a shot at the same opportunity? The decision to rename the schools should be coupled with a commitment to meaningful anti-racism policy changes – not an either/or. I sincerely hope there is enough determination left for this type of work after the renaming debate is done.

If you’ve followed this far, it will be anti-climatic to read that I do support renaming our schools. If my thoughts don’t represent you or if you, too, are concerned about the message the survey results send to our Black students, colleagues, and neighbors – I’m happy to hear from you via email. Either way, it’s more important that you let the School Board know before they vote on December 8th instead of reply-alls on a listserv, which seem to only widen the chasm between us and inflict pain. I wish my School Board colleagues strength and resolve in the coming weeks.

(2) City Council Work Session 

Code Amendments – coming for a first reading vote next week will be an update to requirements for home child care facilities, amendments to add more allowable uses in B-2 zones (limited to the West Falls Church project), and an ordinance for vertical subdivision of properties that would allow different ownership for ground floor uses vs upstairs apartments/condos within in a mixed use building.

Special Exception (SE) Updates 

The Special Exception code has been the main tool used in the city for re-development the past 20 years. It allows for mixed-used development and taller building heights than otherwise permitted if primary and secondary criteria are met. Criteria includes consistency with the City’s Comprehensive Plan, significant increase in net new commercial square footage, positive net new commercial and residential revenue, or 75% of housing included qualifies as affordable. I believe it’s time to modernize the SE criteria with some minor, but impactful tweaks. Here’s why:

  • Redevelopment size – as written, due to market forces and land prices, I believe the SE code incents larger multi-acre projects because of the requirement to provide significant net commercial acreage. My sense is that our community does not have the appetite for a 4 acre project at every corner of the city. Instead we should facilitate some large and some small projects, ie an interesting mix of building heights, sizes, and uses, but that is not feasible with the SE code as written. 
  • Housing types – it’s also worth noting that two small projects in recent memory that didn’t meet SE criteria were small infill, condo projects. Many have lamented about the lack of condo projects to create more opportunities for ownership. This may be one way that helps address the gap.
  • Flexibility – there is a growing reality that the economy and future of real estate is changing. Even before COVID, retail and office were tough markets and post COVID, the future of work may change. To adapt to the market, I believe we need more flexibility in our development code. 
  • Affordable Housing – we’ve never seen a project proposed with 75% of its units as affordable housing, so the criteria is likely too stringent. If we want to facilitate more affordable housing that could get approved through a Special Exception, we should consider updating this criteria.

What’s Coming Up:

Remaining City Council Meetings in 2020:

November 23
December 7
December 14

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