Updates from Letty – October 12, 20178 + new FAQs

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,

New FAQs this week! Our regular meeting covered many of the same items we discussed in previous work sessions, so in lieu of a heavy meeting recap, I’ve written new FAQs as promised. This wasn’t on our agenda, but we heard a lot of public comment this week about speeding issues concerns on Great Falls St. Below you’ll find more information about the Neighborhood Traffic Calming process if you’re concerned about your street and how to get started.

Reminder: Virginia’s deadline for voter registration is this coming Monday. Our Voter Registrar gave us a brief update on election security and in person/absentee voting; we appear to have good turnout heading into the November general election.

I hope you find this next batch of FAQs valuable – do share and keep sending me other questions or feedback.



What Happened This Week:

(1) City Council Meeting – we voted 7-0 for the first readings of the FY19 budget amendment and rezoning the GMHS campus parcels, which will then be referred to the School Board and various boards and commissions before we take a second reading/final vote.

(2) New FAQs

Cars are speeding through my neighborhood! What can be done?

The city has a neighborhood-driven program to address speeding called Neighborhood Traffic Calming (NTC). The NTC program has about $200K of funding in the annual budget. Historically, we’ve been able to accomplish two projects each year, using “heavy” solutions like concrete sidewalk extensions, speed bumps, etc with that budget, although we are testing “light” solutions – such as paint – that are cheaper, faster to implement, and may be just as effective. Neighborhoods can get started by contacting the traffic planner to be assessed and prioritized. If NTC action is required, a majority of the neighborhood has to be on board and sign the petition.

As we continue to develop our commercial corridors and as the region continues to grow with more traffic, I’ve believe we have a responsibility to be responsive to traffic concerns and ensure our residential neighborhoods are safe. I have advocated for dedicated funding for NTC each year so we can increase throughput of the program. As you can see from the NTC queue, we have about 19 requests in the queue, with 7 ranked by the CACT, and only 2-3 that can be actively managed at a time. If you believe traffic calming to be an important priority, you should let us know especially as the FY20 budget season is not too far away.

What about sidewalks? What can be done about missing sidewalks or streets where there are no sidewalks at all?

Improving walkability has been a top policy goal of this current City Council and especially important to me – my family and I try to walk and bike as much as we can when we’re in town. This City Council have been focused on both creating more dining and retail options to which people can walk AND creating safer, walk-friendly streets. In commercial areas, when redevelopment occurs, we have new streetscape standards that were adopted last year to ensure sidewalks are wide enough for strollers, wheelchairs, etc., utility poles are undergrounded to reduce the obstructions, pedestrian signals, and other best practices are implemented to make our streetscape better. These street sections may eventually require public investment to bring them together so there is a cohesive walking experience. In residential neighborhoods – unlike traffic calming, there is currently no formal process to request sidewalks and they are completed on an ad hoc basis. For long time readers, I’ve written about wanting to create a similar bottoms up process as traffic calming, where neighborhoods can petition and compete for funds to complete sidewalks in their neighborhoods. Also, there may be grant programs we can apply for these sidewalk “missing links”, so that will be another option for us to pursue.

How can the city allow so many teardowns in the single family neighborhoods? Is the city only thinking about short term revenue instead of the long term impacts to our neighborhoods and to our schools?

Because of strong property rights in Virginia – teardowns and other redevelopment that occur on single family home (SFH) parcels are usually by-right developments. By right means the city cannot prevent single family neighborhood redevelopment from happening. We have rules restricting the new building’s height, lot coverage, setbacks, canopy coverage, etc but if those are met, then the property owner can redevelop that house within those parameters.

And of course, economics are at play. A bigger house generates more profit to offset the high cost of land, so developers are naturally incented to tear down, build new, and build bigger. Also, there continues to be demand for big houses so until that changes, developers or individual owners will continue to create a supply of larger homes to meet the demand.

As for the impact of the changes in single family neighorhoods – we absolutely care about the impacts to schools and our infrastructure. Site plans, grading plans, and stormwater mitigation are part of the building process that help with some of the downstream environmental and neighborhood impacts. As for impacts to the schools – generational neighborhood turnover has been a large historical driver of our population increase in the schools. (To be clear, the growth hasn’t just come from single family homes, but also townhouses and older apartments – I suspect because the older apartments are some of the remaining somewhat affordable options in the city.) In most cases, we do not see annual net revenue from single family redevelopment, but at the same time, cannot prevent it from happening because it is by-right development.

In contrast, when there is new development in the special exception process, developer offers capital contributions (ie, cash) to schools, parks, library, etc AND the annual fiscal impact for the redevelopment is positive (ie, the revenue generated from the project more than offsets the costs of those new residents and new buildings).

I heard recently that we’re allowing developers to “buy their way out” of affordable housing requirements in new project with a cash contribution. Tell me that isn’t true!

This is likely a misunderstanding of the news about the Broad and Washington and Founders Row projects’ negotiated voluntary concessions (VCs). VCs are what developers offer to the city, as part of the special exception process where we are granting extra height, density, or other features. One of the most expensive VCs we get from developers is that 6% of the new units created have to be affordable. There are HUD-related definitions on who might qualify for affordable units, based on area median income (AMI). Would you believe the Washington DC region’s AMI for a family of 4 is nearly $110K?  Our current inclusionary affordable housing policy is that 6% of units in new buildings are set aside for those who make 60% of area median income and rent is capped below market rate.

With Founders Row and the Broad and Washington project – we’ve actually made two significant areas of progress in the area of affordable housing:

1) In past projects, the affordability provisions expire after 20 years, which means the developer or owner of the development can convert them to market rate units after 20 years and the rent no longer has to be affordable. With the two recent approvals, we’ve now secured the ADU commitments in perpetuity, which is terrific.

2) Some or all of those affordable units can be converted to cash, which may be where this misunderstanding arose. The conversion would happen before any residents occupy the units, so no one would be kicked out. At the same time, this doesn’t allow a developer to buy out of affordable housing contribution. The reason why a cash conversion can be useful is because the cash would be directed to the Affordable Housing Fund (AHF), which has a current balance of $200K and hasn’t been replenished in many years. Years ago, the AHF was used for downpayment assistance which helped families buy their first home. The AHF could be used for new downpayment assistance programs, emergency rent relief, and preserving existing affordable buildings. While having less affordable units in a new building would be an important and tough decision – the value of 6% of units in perpetuity, converted to cash, could be very significant and when leveraged, would make a bigger impact than just 27 units every few years (27 units are committed in Founders Row).

When we look at the current supply of affordable units – whether that is market rate or the affordable units – supply is not keeping up with demand and Falls Church is becoming less and less affordable for many. Even those who work in our city like teachers, police officers, servers and even those who earn 80-120% of AMI, Falls Church does not have many options for them. Having a stronger AHF will be important for funding projects to make a bigger impact on affordability. All kinds of diversity is (racial, socioeconomic, generational, etc) is important for the long term health of the city and I believe affordability is a key part of that.

We are landlocked and with all of this development, we’re running out of land!

While it may seem that we’re developing all of the available commercial land within our 2.2 square miles, there was analysis done by staff last year that showed otherwise. As part of the 2040 vision work where participants have asked how long the city can continue to grow at its recent rate of redevelopment, staff looked at the Planning Opportunity Areas (POAs) of the city, ie the commercial corridors. In each POA, the total available land was identified, then subtracted out un-developable land, and using the pace of development in 2000-2015 – projected out the development that could occur between 2016-2040.

The conclusion is only 34 out of 203 acres have been redeveloped between 2000-2015. And the city could continue to redevelop at its current rate through the year 2090 before exhausting the land available in the POAs. Now, no one is advocating we develop every inch of the city, but this conclusion may be surprising for many – that we actually have a lot of development opportunity left.

pace of redevelopment
Pace of Redevelopment 2000-2015 and 2016-2040

The City’s POAs hold a total of 248.9 acres. Of that total, 45.5 acres (18%) are held as public right of way, leaving 203.4 acres for other uses. Between 2000 and 2015, 34.0 acres of land were redeveloped in the City, for an average annual rate of 2.3 acres. Assuming this same rate of development through 2040 and an equal distribution of redevelopment across the City’s POAs, no POA would fully turn over. Further, seven of the eight POAs would see redevelopment on approximately 50 percent or less of their land area between 2000 and 2040.



What’s Coming Up: