Updates from Letty – October 3, 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,

Eagle-eyed readers will see that this week’s post is hitting your inboxes/blog readers a day early. I’m writing early to remind you that there are two good events tonight:

(1) Election Day is about a month away, and one of the first candidates forums is tonight, October 3 for School Board candidates, 7-9 pm at the The American Legion Post 130. For the City Council forum schedule – see the link at the bottom of this post.

(2) West Falls Church project – the first of many community sessions in preparation for the next plan submissions on the West Falls Church Economic Development project. Tonight, from 7-830 pm at the Community Center will be a meeting to discuss “placemaking” with select boards and commissions and the public. “Placemaking” is a developer buzzword, but it’s important because it’s what makes a place special and interesting to live and visit – a very much, “you know when you see it” when it’s done well. See the other opportunities to engage the community here.

To take advantage of a lighter meeting schedule, I’ve been meeting residents at my office hours and while doorknocking. If you read my posts, you’re likely more informed than most, but I thought it would be helpful to do a FAQ redux based on some of the most popular topics I’m hearing. If you find this helpful, please share with friends and neighbors!




Here are the top 5 topics I’m hearing from residents. How does this compare to what your neighborhood is discussing?

  1. Traffic calming & sidewalks
  2. Taxes
  3. Development
  4. Affordability
  5. More restaurants

Traffic calming – if you missed last week’s post about the next round of traffic calming – see here. I’ve also clipped the video from last week’s meeting into a 5 minute report by the City Manager if you’d rather watch the video on my Facebook page. Bottom line: walkability and pedestrian safety have been among my top priorities, shared by the rest of City Council – you’ll continue hearing about how we’re pushing to accelerate the pace and number of projects to address traffic calming in our neighborhoods.

For taxes, development, and affordability – I’ve pulled out select FAQs I’ve written in the past with links to the original posts too. Note that while a few years old, the answers largely hold. For new readers, you’ll see I’m very much data-driven – I provide you the links to the data and analysis itself so you can also see how I’ve arrived at my responses.

Q: Why do we build so many apartments and condos when the additional students crowd our schools? The annual update of “where students live” analysis will be available later this year, but here is the response I offered last December based on the 2018-2019 data. (2018)

A: As I’ve shared every year, the Student Ratios per Dwelling Unit chart, produced by a collaborative effort by the general government and schools, is an important piece of data to monitor. Key takeaways from this year’s:

  • This year, total Pk-12 student enrollment surprisingly dropped from 2707 to 2635 students, a decrease of 72 students. This is the first time I’ve seen a decrease. This data is only readily available in the past 10 years, but it may be longer than that since we’ve seen enrollment declines.
  • With the exception of single family houses and mid rise condos which saw very small increases, there were less students in all of the other housing types.
  • One of the most common misconceptions is that our previous years’ of student enrollment growth comes from the new mixed use development. While there are students who live in those buildings, it is a small percentage. And 7 out of 8 buildings have seen the forecasted number of students, with Pearson Square as the outlier. This year, the number of students living in the 8 mixed use buildings dropped from 234 to 215 total students, about 8% of total students.
  • 60% of students live in single family houses, 13% in townhouses, 16% in older apartments, and 2% in older condos.

Q: Why are you building more apartments? We don’t need more housing in the city (2018)

A: Both of the newest buildings – West Broad and the Lincoln are 90+% occupied. The demand is there. There won’t be endless development of apartments because we’re constrained within 2.2 square miles and real estate trends are cyclical. I also think we’re not yet “maxing” out the amount of housing in the city. I also believe that given our location in Northern Virginia and the various accolades that are putting us on the map, we’re going to continue to experience population growth and therefore have housing needs. And to the point above, our city needs a more balanced demographic in order to be sustainable and independent, and small apartments have attracted a younger demographic to the city.

2019 update: In fact, in the latest study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, it says the region has a housing shortage, especially affordable housing. The area will need 320,000 more housing units by 2030 – and clearly Falls Church, while small geographically, is part of the region and will need to contribute. Housing policy wonks should read the report – it’s terrific.

Q: Traffic is going to be terrible! We can’t have more development. (2018)

A: Yes this project will add some traffic, but to quote Monday night, it would be “a teaspoon in the large bucket” given that vast majority of traffic on our streets are cars coming/going through town. Did you know that nearly 1 million cars pass through the city each month? Only a small percentage of those are actually City of Falls Church residents. For the Broad and Washington project – the traffic consultant stated the the new project would add 3% to the total trips in the city.

2019 update: we also negotiate for transportation improvements with each project. For Founders Row underway, a new lane will be added going southbound on N. West street, a bikeshare station will be added, utilities will be undergrounded to make way for wider sidewalks and nice streetscape for pedestrians, and the W&OD will be realigned at Park/West with a new traffic signal for that curvy turn. With the WFC project, we secured the $15.7M grant that will help with pedestrian safety, congestion relief, and other transportation improvements at Haycock/Rt 7. It’s often messy until it gets better, but we’re committed to improving the transportation infrastructure with development.

Q: Ground floors are always vacant – why are we building more mixed use, only for them to be vacant? (2018)

A: While there are a handful of high visibility vacant spots, Falls Church has low vacancy rates, and much lower than our neighbors. Per the 2017 CAFR we reviewed in January, office has a vacancy rate of 8.3% (vs regional vacancy rate of nearly 20%). Retail vacancy rate is even lower at 2.3%. For new buildings, it often takes time for leases to be signed and a building to be fully occupied.

Q: How does economic development help my taxes and the City’s finances? (2017)

A: Without the developments that have occurred the past 10+ years, our budgets would much tighter and tax rates would be even higher than they currently are. This was from last year’s budget documents, but it essentially shows the positive economic impact from new development in the past 10​+​ years in Falls Church. West Broad and Tinner Hill weren’t included yet. It shows the direct net annual ​tax revenue we get from the new buildings, plus other revenue benefits like personal property, sales, meals taxes, etc. All of that combined is equivalent to 7 cents on the real estate tax rate, which means our tax rate would be 7 cents higher had it not been for the projects that have occurred. In other words, every year when we’ve had various surprise costs or pressures to fund new priorities, we would be 7 cents in the hole than we would be otherwise if those projects weren’t generating that revenue.

The new developments in Falls Church have been predominantly mixed use buildings, which is what the market currently wants to generate. I also believe a successful commercial district has a diverse mix of uses, which ensures resilience as market conditions fluctuate, adds vibrancy, and provides additional housing options. We’ve recently passed incentives to encourage more commercial only development, but the regional market for office only development is tough.

That said, mixed use projects in Falls Church have more than paid for themselves. The link below contains the actual data from the first 6 projects in the City and will be updated in the coming year as we get data coming in from West Broad and Tinner Hill. They have contributed $2.8MM net annual tax revenue (ie, after all service costs have been accounted for) and on a per student basis – generate $38K per year per student basis – more than double what they cost the City in services. There’s also spinoff economic benefit that’s harder to quantify.

In addition, new development projects have contributed over $3MM in cash contributions that have gone towards school construction like Mt. Daniel, which lowers the amount we need to borrow, and cash to other parts of the city to enhance the things we cherish like parks, library, affordable housing.

There’s also a bunch of soft benefits I personally see with the new developments. They have often replaced underperforming, dilapidated buildings. They also improve the streetscape, sidewalks, and provide more destinations for our residents to walk or bike to without needing a car and bring people outside of FCC to visit and spend their money here. On the flip side, I believe we have a responsibility to plan for impacts like parking, protecting residential neighborhoods with traffic calming measures, and retaining as many local small businesses here as possible.

See here for the fiscal comparison of past mixed use projects in the past 15 years.

2017 FAQs

2018 FAQs

What’s Coming Up:

  • Tuesday, October 15 – City Council Meeting (730 pm, City Hall)
  • Wednesday, October 16 – West Falls Church Economic Development Town Hall
  • Monday October 21 – City Council Work Session (730 pm, City Hall)
  • Sunday, October 27 – Letty’s Office Hours (9 am, Cafe Kindred)
  • Monday, October 28 – City Council Meeting (730 pm, City Hall)
  • Tuesday, November 5 – Election Day

Campaign Info: If you’re interested in attending campaign debates and learning about the other candidates: www.lettyhardi.org/events/