Updates from Letty – October 1, 2021
Blog posts are the personal views of Letty Hardi and not official statements or records on behalf of the Falls Church City Council
I hope everyone is enjoying the delightful fall weather. We blinked and somehow it’s October 2021, and we find ourselves still in the pandemic, albeit the “new normal” where we’re cautiously resuming community gatherings and fall traditions. This week, I was reminded of the value of seemingly ceremonial items like proclamations and in person public comments in our meetings, which had been on hiatus for 18 months – a shout out to the girl scouts and neighbors who came to speak to us. To see City Council chambers filled with people and kids again was a spot of joy in the midst of these weird, heavy times.
- We had a big vote to advance Founders Row 2 – I’ll explain why it’s not a done deal, the top issues I heard from the community, and my thoughts behind the vote.
- There were also two community events on the One City Center project, so I’ll briefly point you to more materials if you’re interested.
- We have no meeting next week due to a conference. Our next meeting will be on Tuesday, October 12 (we’re observing Indigenous Peoples Day on Monday, October 11) – where we’ll discuss One City Center and our climate action plan, including a plastic bag tax.
- Note that another set of City Council and School Board candidate forums have been added to this fall’s civic calendars, hosted by the CBC and the PTAs (scroll to the end for links). If you haven’t had enough forums or just want to see me one-on-one, the League of Women Voters has invited me to a virtual conversation on Sunday, October 10. Feel free to email me any topics you’d like me to tackle.
What Happened This Week:
(1) Founders Row 2
By a 4-3 vote, we advanced the Founders Row 2 project to the next phase. The proposal is a mixed use project at the southwestern corner of Broad and West, the site of the former Rite Aid and perennially going out of business carpet store, meant to complement the nearly complete Founders Row 1. Besides housing, the project includes a small amount of commercial space, including co-working space, 50% of the ground floor dedicated to restaurant/food, a side plaza and lawn on the West and Ellison side (bringing open space ratio to 30%) and tree canopy coverage to 11%. Besides the positive fiscal benefits, other voluntary concessions (ie direct benefits to the community like cash to the schools and stormwater improvements), and meeting the primary and secondary criteria for the Special Exception – most notably, the project includes a concession that 12% of the units will be dedicated as affordable housing. 12% is double the current policy and would be a dramatic addition of permanently affordable housing stock to the city. This presentation is a good summary of the project.
I was part of the majority and voted to grant first reading. To be clear, this was not a green light for shovels in the ground tomorrow – the project isn’t perfect but I was willing to advance it with the expectation that it will continue to be improved. For those new to following development projects, development is a fairly long and involved process, usually involving 2 votes and many submissions in between. Vote #1 is a referral to boards and commissions for review and further negotiations with the developer before a final submission and vote #2. The review by boards and commissions is valuable – their reviews span environmental improvements to transportation planning to housing contributions and more. From my experience, this is where projects really benefit from our citizens’ expertise on our boards. Vote #1 was this week with vote #2 sometime in spring 2022.
It’s also a good time to again talk about the case for mixed use development – most simply, it diversifies our tax base, generating about $4M in net revenue each year (equivalent to 9 cents on the real estate property tax rate) on top of revitalizing underutilized parcels and adding walkable destinations, people, and vibrancy to our city. It’s one of the reasons why we were able to lower the tax rate 3.5 cents last spring, on top of building a new high school, library, and more the past year.
While you may disagree with the vote, know that I heard you and will be focused on addressing these key issues we heard:
- “Too dense/too much housing/not enough commercial” – yes admittedly, the project is dense compared to the vacant RiteAid, carpet store, and parking lots, but the super high land costs in the city drive the type of re-development that can realistically occur. Due to land costs, there just aren’t commercial only deals available – the city does court interested developers, helps them find available properties, encourages coordination and consolidation, but commercial spaces like skating rinks and athletic facilities are economically very tough. There’s a reason why those facilities have opened where land is much cheaper or where a locality offered incentives. Given market conditions – to me, the quality of commercial space is more important than the quantity. As such – we’ll keep pushing on the ”something special” component to occupy some of the retail space that’s been identified in Founders Row 2.
“Residential” and “more people” have become bad words in the city. As long as we appropriately plan for the infrastructure needs, I believe it’s ok for us to welcome more people and more diverse housing types. We all want the cool, walkable retail but those kinds of businesses need feet on the ground, ie more people to support them and help them thrive. Otherwise, they’ll require more people from outside of the city to come in cars, which leads to congestion that no one wants either. Regionally there is a huge shortfall in housing units and the only places with big housing increases are way outside the Beltway, which again leads to bigger traffic issues.
- “Too much traffic” – speaking of infrastructure concerns, traffic was cited as a big one. There was a traffic study done as part of the project submission, which included the projections from other projects in the pipeline and regional growth forecasts. If you don’t want to read the 60 pages, the study cited that the performance of nearby intersections doesn’t worsen except at Broad/West which can be mitigated with signal timing changes. As background, about 1 million cars pass through Broad/Washington each month and a comparable number at Broad/West – meaning we’re in the crossroads of a large regional road network where only a very small portion of those cars are the city’s. Still, we should do our part. Besides making it safer for pedestrians with new sidewalks and bus riders with a new bus shelter and other multimodal infrastructure (all concessions offered by the project), we should make sure neighbors in cars can safely turn out of Ellison and address queuing issues on West. I’d also like to see the project address traffic calming in surrounding neighborhoods – so there’s more work to be done.
- “We should wait for Founders Row 1 to open” – because it’s the same developer, Mill Creek, I share a similar expectation that we see progress at Founders Row 1 before moving forward with another project – but note I differentiate between progress vs completion. This week, we were told there will be 5 leases announced in the coming month at FR1, tenant build out to occur this winter, and more to come – which means we’ll have time to gauge the status at FR1 before a decision on FR2 is scheduled.
(2) One City Center
One City Center is a reincarnation of a redevelopment project that stalled during the recession in 2009. Atlantic Realty is now back – we saw an initial presentation in April and there was both a walking tour and a virtual community meeting this week. One City Center is a new mixed-use development project, assembling 5 parcels at the southwestern corner of Broad and Washington. It would include the following elements:
- Façade improvements to the existing George Mason Square office campus (office building above the 4Ps)
- Façade improvements to 150 S. Washington St office building
- At the corner of Broad and S. Maple, a new 10 story mixed-use building comprised of approximately 110K square feet of new commercial uses (ground floor retail, potential grocer, and upper level office), 320K square feet of new residential uses with 246 rental apartments, and a new garage. The new building would be about a 75/25 residential to commercial mix and generate roughly $740K of net fiscal benefit per year
- Note a cool traffic circle proposed to improve the S. Maple/Annandale intersection
While it may seem like there is one project after another, again – keep in mind that each project has a long lead time with reviews, community input, and approvals before they proceed. Projects we’re discussing now, if approved, won’t be breaking ground for awhile. (For reference, Founders Row 1 started about 10 years ago and it was one of my first votes when I joined City Council in early 2016.)
We’ll be discussing One City Center when we meet on October 12.
(3) COVID – If you haven’t seen – boosters are now approved and readily available for certain populations. The health department and Virginia have been planning for expansion of vaccines for the 5-11 population when the Fed approves it – more details will be shared when available.
What’s Coming Up:
Sunday, Oct 10 at 3 pm – Letty’s Conversation with League of Women Voters
Tuesday, Oct 12 – City Council Meetings every Monday (except 5th Mondays) at 7:30 pm
You can access the agenda and livestream here, including recordings of past meetings
Elections 2020 – General Election on Tuesday, November 2
Thursday, Sept 30 at 730 pm – League of Women Voters & VPIS virtual candidate forum – City Council Candidates
Thursday, Oct 7 at 730 pm – League of Women Voters & VPIS virtual candidate forum – School Board Candidates
Thursday, Oct 14 at 7:30 pm – Citizens for a Better City – City Council Candidates Forum (virtual)
Thursday, Oct 21 at 7:30 pm – Citizens for a Better City & PTA – School Board Candidates Forum (virtual)
League of Women Voters – vote411.org voter guide
Falls Church Democrats Questionnaires for City Council candidates and School Board candidates
Village Preservation & Improvement Society Candidate Questionnaire